IGF-II, produced by breast cancer epithelial and stromal cells, enhances tumor growth by activating the IGF-I receptor (IGF-I-R) via autocrine and paracrine mechanisms. Previously we found that the insulin receptor (IR), which is related to the IGF-I-R, is overexpressed in breast cancer cells. Herein, we find that, in breast cancer the IR is activated by IGF-II. In eight human breast cancer cell lines studied there was high affinity IGF-II binding to the IR, with subsequent IR activation. In these lines, IGF-II had a potency up to 63% that of insulin. In contrast, in non malignant human breast cells, IGF-II was less than 1% potent as insulin. Via activation of the IR tyrosine kinase IGF-II stimulated breast cancer cell growth. Moreover, IGF-II also activated the IR in breast cancer tissue specimens; IGF-II was 10-100% as potent as insulin. The IR occurs in two isoforms generated by alternative splicing of exon 11; these isoforms are IR-A (Ex11-) and IR-B (Ex11+). IR-A was predominantly expressed in breast cancer cells and specimens and the potency of IGF-II was correlated to the expression of this isoform (P<0.0001). These data indicate, therefore, that the IR-A, which binds IGF-II with high affinity, is predominantly expressed in breast cancer cells and represents a new autocrine/paracrine loop involved in tumor biology.