Oncostatin M is a novel growth regulator originally isolated from differentiated human histiocytic lymphoma cells and activated T-lymphocytes based on its ability to inhibit the growth of A375 melanoma cells. We report here that oncostatin M is a widely acting regulator which alters the growth and/or morphology of cells derived from a variety of cancer cell types. At picomolar concentrations, recombinant oncostatin M inhibited the growth of 13/24 tumor cell lines. Six out of 7 lung cancer cell lines were inhibited by oncostatin M, but none of 6 colon cancer cell lines were affected. Oncostatin M also stimulated the growth of some normal cells (3/6), indicating that it, like many growth regulators, is bifunctional. Oncostatin M receptors appear necessary but not sufficient for a growth response to oncostatin M, since none of the cell lines lacking receptor responded to oncostatin M, whereas many but not all cell lines with receptor responded to oncostatin M. Receptor size (Mr congruent to 150,000) was similar for cells in which growth was inhibited, stimulated, or unaffected by oncostatin M.