Changes in circulating levels of insulin-like growth factors (IGF) and IGF-binding proteins (IGFBP) have been related to prostate cancer, but the nature and the significance of this relationship remains elusive. Recent reports suggest that modulation of the production of IGFBP-3 by retinoids may affect growth of breast and prostate tumor cells. In the present study we explored whether androgens (R1881), retinoids (all-trans- and 9-cis-retinoic acid: atRA and 9cRA), deltanoids (1alpha,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol: VD3) and thyroid hormone (triiodothyronine: T3) influence the production of IGFBPs by LNCaP prostatic adenocarcinoma cells and whether the observed changes affect tumor cell growth. Northern blot experiments demonstrated that LNCaP cells express IGFBP-2, -3, -4 and (to a small extent) -5. IGFBP-4 and -5 were not measurably affected by the mentioned agonists. At a growth promoting concentration (10(-10) M), R1881 increased IGFBP-2 transcript levels two- to three-fold and this effect was neutralized by atRA and VD3. Similar effects could not be demonstrated, however, at the protein level using Western ligand blotting. R1881 decreased and atRA increased the mRNA levels of IGFBP-3 and these effects were confirmed by Western ligand blotting and by radioimmunoassay. The effects of atRA were mimicked by 9cRA and by a specific RAR agonist but not by a RXR agonist. VD3 and T3 had no significant effect on IGFBP-3 secretion but respectively enhanced or decreased the effect of 9cRA. The effects of retinoids required high concentrations (10(-6)-10(-5) M) that also induced growth inhibition. R1881, however, decreased IGFBP-3 at growth promoting (10(-10) M) as well as at growth inhibitory (10(-8) M) concentrations. Moreover, under serum-free conditions, we were unable to demonstrate any growth modulating effect of IGFBP-3. It is concluded that several agonists acting by nuclear receptors affect IGFBP-3 secretion by LNCaP cells but that the functional significance of these changes warrants further investigation.