The insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) plays an important role in determining the biological behavior of a variety of malignancies. We measured IGF-I, its receptor and related receptors in thyroid cancer. IGF-I was present both in normal thyroid tissue and in thyroid cancer tissue and it was produced by stromal cells but not by thyrocytes. Values were significantly higher in malignant than in normal tissue. IGF-I receptors (IGF-I-Rs) and the homologous insulin receptors (IRs) were found overexpressed in both thyroid cancer cell lines (n = 4) and specimens (n = 17) as compared to normal values. In addition, high levels of hybrid IGF-I/insulin receptors (IR/IGF-I-Rs) were present in both thyroid cancer specimens and cell lines. IR/IGF-I-R hybrids were the most represented type of receptor in 14/17 specimens and exceeded the IGF-I-R content in all cases. Hybrid content correlated with the IR and IGF-I-R content, suggesting that in thyroid tissue hybrid formation occurs by random assembly of IR and IGF-I-R half receptors. Hybrid receptor autophosphorylation was stimulated by IGF-I with high affinity. In cells with a high IR/IGF-I-Rs content, blocking antibodies specific to these receptors substantially inhibited IGF-I induced cell growth. These data indicate that the IGF-I system is overactivated in thyroid cancer and that IR/IGF-I-R hybrid receptors play an important role in IGF-I mitogenic signaling in these tumors.