Nerve growth factor (NGF) mRNAs were detected and quantified in a variety of normal and neoplastic human tissues by northern blot hybridization. Human heart contained the highest NGF mRNA levels, whereas lower but comparable levels were found in the placenta, prostate, and kidney. All tissues examined coexpressed the low-affinity NGF receptor (LNGFR), whereas none of these tissues expressed the high-affinity NGF receptor encoded by the trk protooncogene. The widespread distribution of the LNGFR suggests that it plays a role in the regulation of normal cell growth. No overexpression of NGF or LNGFR mRNA was detected in neoplastic tissues, whereas LNGFR-like immunoreactivity was localized outside of tumor cells. Transforming growth factor-alpha and protooncogene c-fos expression in these tissues did not show a systematic correlation with NGF/LNGFR expression. Furthermore, regulation of the human NGF gene was studied in DU145 cells, a prostatic adenocarcinoma cell line that synthesizes significant NGF mRNA levels. Serum induced, whereas dexamethasone inhibited, NGF mRNA synthesis in these cells. Serum induction was preceded by a rapid and transient activation of the c-fos protooncogene.