The in vivo effects of recombinant human insulin-like growth factor-I (rhIGF-I) on whole body protein metabolism were studied to ascertain whether rhIGF-I has comparable effects as those reported with rhGH use in humans. The doses of rhIGF-I chosen achieved similar plasma IGF-I concentrations as those achieved after 7 days of rhGH injections. Eight normal volunteers were studied using [1-13C]- and [1-14C]leucine tracers, before, 4 h, and 28 h after a continuous infusion of rhIGF-I at 5 micrograms kg-1 h-1 (n = 6) and 10 micrograms kg-1 h-1 (n = 2). Two additional subjects were studied in a protein catabolic state after 7 days of high dose (0.8 mg kg-1 day-1) glucocorticosteroid administration. Plasma concentrations of rhIGF-I were similar using either 5 or 10 micrograms kg-1 h-1 and increased to values approximately 300% above baseline by 28 h of infusion. No decrease in the plasma glucose concentration was observed during the 28-h infusion; however, plasma insulin, C-peptide, and glucagon concentrations significantly decreased, whereas plasma free fatty acids were not affected. No changes were observed in the rate of proteolysis (as estimated by the rate of leucine appearance), the rate of leucine oxidation, or the rate of protein synthesis in the absence or presence of glucocorticosteroid treatment. Plasma concentrations of insulin-like growth factor binding protein-3 did not change during the rhIGF-I infusion whereas they increased 50% in subjects who received rhGH, and in whom rhGH caused a potent protein anabolic effect. These results suggest that rhIGF-I may have a somatostatin-like effect. In addition, we found that rhIGF-I infusion is insufficient to promote protein anabolism. This may be due to the failure of rhIGF-I alone to induce a pivotal GH-dependent cofactor(s) necessary for IGF-I to elicit an anabolic effect on protein metabolism in humans.