Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) is an important mitogen, and IGF binding protein-3 (IGFBP-3) has opposing effects. Acromegalics, who have abnormally elevated levels of IGF-1, are at increased risk of colorectal tumors. Recent studies have found that IGF-1 levels correlate with risk of prostate cancer and colorectal cancer in men, premenopausal breast cancer in women, and lung cancer in men and women. We examined whether prediagnostic plasma levels of IGF-1 and IGFBP-3 influence risk of colorectal cancer and adenoma in women. From 1989 to 1990, a total of 32,826 women from the Nurses' Health Study provided blood specimens that were archived in liquid nitrogen. During 6 years of follow-up from 1989 to 1994, we documented 79 new cases of colorectal cancer, 90 cases of intermediate/late-stage adenoma (> or =1 cm or tubulovillous/villous histology), and 107 cases of early-stage adenoma (<1 cm and tubular histology). After matching controls (2:1 for cancers and 1:1 for adenomas) to cases by age, month of blood draw, fasting status, and indication for endoscopy (for adenoma controls), plasma IGF-1 and IGFBP-3 levels were measured. Controlling for IGFBP-3 level, relative to women in the low tertile of IGF-1, those in the high tertile were at elevated risk of intermediate/late-stage colorectal neoplasia adenoma [multivariate relative risk (RR), 2.78; 95% confidence interval (CI), 0.76-9.76] and cancer (RR, 2.18; 95% CI, 0.94-5.08). Controlling for IGF-1 level, relative to women in the low tertile of IGFBP-3, women in the high tertile of IGFBP-3 were at lower risk of intermediate/late-stage colorectal adenoma (RR, 0.28; 95% CI, 0.09-0.85) and cancer (RR, 0.28; 95% CI, 0.10-0.83). Neither IGF-1 nor IGFBP-3 had any appreciable relation with early-stage adenoma. These analyses indicate that high levels of circulating IGF-1 and particularly low levels of IGFBP-3 are associated independently with an elevated risk of large or tubulovillous/villous colorectal adenoma and cancer.