Lung cancer, particularly small cell lung cancer (SCLC), is characterized by production of numerous peptides and their resulting clinical syndromes. Such peptides can act as autocrine growth factors for these tumors. In this study, we investigated the role of endothelin (ET)-1 in lung cancer. Using reverse transcription/polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, and immunocytochemistry, we screened a panel of lung cancer cell lines for ET-1, its receptors, and endothelin converting enzyme-1 (ECE-1), which generates the active form of ET-1. ET-1 messenger RNA was expressed in five of seven SCLC, four of four non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), and human bronchial epithelial (HBE) cells. The intracellular isoform of ECE-1, important in processing ET-1 if an autocrine growth loop is to function, was downregulated in the lung cancer cell lines as compared with expression of the extracellular isoform. Endothelin A receptor (ETAR), which mediates the mitogenic effects of ET-1 in prostate and ovarian cancer, was upregulated in HBE cells compared with expression in three of seven SCLC and two of four NSCLC cell lines. Endothelin B receptor (ETBR) was more widespread, being expressed in seven of seven SCLC, four of four NSCLC, and the HBE cells. We used flow cytometry to measure mobilization of intracellular calcium as a functional assay for the ETAR. These data concurred with the RT-PCR results, indicating that the ETAR was downregulated or was involved in an alternative signal transduction pathway in lung cancer, and no evidence of functional receptor mediating an autocrine growth loop was found. From our study, the data do not support the putative functional autocrine growth role of ET-1 in lung cancer. We propose instead that ET-1 may act as a paracrine growth factor for surrounding epithelial and endothelial cells via alternative pathways, promoting angiogenesis and stromal growth.