The height of subjects with constitutionally tall stature (CTS) is at least 2 SD above the mean of subjects of the same age and sex. Apart from a few discordant data on the role of GH and its direct mediator, IGF-I, no studies have been conducted on other components of the IGF system, which also condition the bioavailability and activity of IGF-I. We, therefore, investigated the possibility that other components of the IGF system might play a role in determining the increased growth velocity seen in CTS. To this end, we evaluated the behavior not only of IGF-I but also of IGF-II, IGF-binding protein (IGFBP)-3, and acid-labile subunit, the subunits that constitute the main IGF complex in circulation (150-kDa complex), as well as of IGFBP-1 and IGFBP-2, which are negatively regulated by GH and, like IGFBP-3, able to influence the bioavailability of the IGFs. The study was performed on 22 prepubertal subjects affected by CTS (16 males and 6 females), aged 2.8-13.3 yr (6.8 +/- 0.5 yr, mean +/- SEM). Thirty-seven normal prepubertal subjects (16 males and 21 females) aged between 2.2 and 13.3 yr (6.7 +/- 0.5 yr), who were comparable in socioeconomic and nutritional terms, served as controls. From the auxological point of view, subjects with CTS differed significantly from controls only in terms of growth velocity (HV-SD score; CTS, 1.8 +/- 0.3; controls, 0.4 +/- 0.2; P < 0.0001) and height (H-SD score; CTS, 3.1 +/- 0.1; controls, 0.4 +/- 0.2; P < 0.0001). The results demonstrated that the concentrations of IGF-I (27.3 +/- 2.0 nmol/liter), IGFBP-3 (66.9 +/- 3.8), and acid-labile subunit (216.8 +/- 13.6) in CTS-affected subjects were not significantly different from those determined in controls (25.0 +/- 2.9, 74.4 +/- 4.1, and 241.0 +/- 11.9, respectively). By contrast, IGF-II levels proved significantly higher in CTS subjects (IGF-II: 87.2 +/- 3.4 vs. 52.4 +/- 2.3, P < 0.0001). Chromatographic analysis, performed after acid treatment of pooled sera, showed only the presence of normal 7.5-kDa IGF-II in both CTS subjects and controls. In comparison with controls, CTS children showed a lower concentration of IGFBP-1 (1.6 +/- 0.3 vs. 4.1 +/- 0.7, P = 0.03) and a higher concentration of IGFBP-2 (14.3 +/- 1.8 vs. 9.6 +/- 1.1, P = 0.03). The IGFs (IGF-I and -II)/IGFBPs (-1 + -2 + -3) molar ratio was significantly higher (P < 0.0001) in CTS children than in controls. In particular, the IGF-II/IGFBP ratio (P < 0.0001) was responsible for the excess of the IGF peptide in relation to the concentrations of IGFBPs and, therefore, for the increase in the potentially bioactive free form of the IGFs. Moreover, the IGFBP-3/IGF molar ratio was significantly reduced, being less than 1 in CTS subjects (0.6 +/- 0.1 vs. 1.1 +/- 0.1), so that a quantity of IGF peptides lack sufficient IGFBP-3 to form the 150-kDa complex with which are normally sequestered in the vascular compartment. The data show that in CTS: 1) the most GH-dependent components of the IGF system are normal, consistent with the finding of a normal GH secretory state; 2) the less GH-dependent IGF-II is significantly increased, in agreement with the finding of a relationship between high levels of IGF-II and overgrowth in some syndromes; and 3) the IGF/IGFBP molar ratio is increased, and, therefore, a greater availability of free IGF for target tissues may be responsible for overgrowth in CTS.