Ovarian carcinomas secrete single-chain urinary-type plasminogen activator (scuPA) and expression of uPA is up-regulated relative to normal ovarian epithelium, leading to an enhanced proteolytic capacity which may facilitate invasion. Furthermore, the uPA receptor (uPAR) is present on ovarian carcinoma cells and is occupied in tumour tissues. In the present study, incubation of scuPA with serum-free conditioned medium from ovarian carcinoma cells resulted in release of a 14 kDa polypeptide. N-terminal sequence analysis identified this fragment as the uPA N-terminal fragment (NTF), which contains a growth-factor and a kringle domain. NTF generation was abolished by serine-proteinase inhibitors, but not inhibitors of matrix metalloproteinases, and was not enhanced by the addition of plasminogen or plasmin. To determine whether ovarian carcinoma-cell growth is altered by uPA, the effect of exogenous scuPA or NTF on proliferation was analysed. Both NTF and scuPA induced a dose-dependent increase in proliferation, with maximal stimulation obtained at 10-20 nM. Furthermore, blocking the interaction of endogenous uPA with uPAR using anti-NTF antibodies significantly inhibited proliferation. Together these data indicate that, in addition to enhancing the invasive activity of ovarian carcinoma cells via increased pericellular proteolysis, uPA also acts as a mitogen for ovarian carcinoma cells, suggesting a biochemical mechanism whereby uPA may contribute to ovarian carcinoma progression by modulating both cell invasion and proliferation.