The decidualized endometrium during the first trimester of pregnancy synthesizes and secretes a 32-kDa insulin-like growth factor-binding protein (termed hIGFBP-1) at high levels. IGFBP-1 is the major soluble protein product of this tissue and is principally localized to the differentiated endometrial stromal cell, the decidual cell. In the present study long term culture of stromal cells from the nonpregnant endometrium have been employed to elucidate the hormonal requirements for IGFBP-1 production. Immunoreactive IGFBP-1 was undetectable in control cultures. However, inclusion of medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) induced rates of 0.35 +/- 0.09 microgram/0.1 mg cell DNA.day (mean +/- SEM; n = 5) after 20-30 days. In these cultures cells exhibited morphological changes consistent with decidual cell differentiation. In all cultures removal of MPA after exposure for 10-16 days, with or without subsequent inclusion of relaxin (RLX), increased production of IGFBP-1 450- to 4600-fold to rates of 150-710 micrograms/0.1 mg cell DNA.day or 26-131 micrograms/10(6) cells.day on days 24-26. The rates tended to be higher with the inclusion of RLX and were sustained in contrast to cultures without RLX, where rates fell by day 30. Individual cultures responded differently to RLX when added from the initiation of culture, with either a response similar to MPA alone or a cyclical change in production, achieving maximal rates of 190-290 micrograms/0.1 mg cell DNA.day. Cultures in which RLX alone induced high IGFBP-1 high production were obtained from endometrium during the progesterone-dominated luteal phase. In cultures exhibiting high rates of immunoreactive IGFBP-1 production, the protein represented their major secretory protein product. This was confirmed by [35S]methionine incorporation and the presence of IGFBP-1 as the predominant protein in serum-free culture medium. The immunoreactive IGFBP-1 isolated from culture medium was found to be identical, by a number of criteria, with IGFBP-1 derived from decidual tissue. These results were consistent with a primary role of progestin exposure, whether in vivo or in vitro, in converting endometrial stromal cells to cells potentially able to exhibit the high rates of IGFBP-1 production typical of the decidualized endometrium of pregnancy.