Hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), a paracrine factor secreted by follicular papilla cells, acts on neighboring follicular epithelial cells to promote follicular growth, while HGF activator is a serine proteinase, which converts inactive single-chain HGF to the active heterodimeric form. In this study, using 3' rapid amplification of cDNA end/nested polymerase chain reaction (3' RACE/nested PCR) and immunoblotting, we confirmed the expression of HGF activator in both cultured human follicular papilla cells and outer root sheath cells. HGF activator mRNA was expressed in all of the isolated 15 anagen hair follicles taken from the scalps of seven individuals. In an organ culture system, single-chain HGF stimulated hair follicle elongation, which was partially inhibited by aprotinin, a serine proteinase inhibitor (P<0.01). These results suggest that single-chain HGF secreted from follicular papilla cells is converted to an active heterodimeric form by intrinsic HGF activator and that the resultant active form of HGF stimulates hair growth.