Serum insulinlike growth factor-I (IGF-I) concentration was evaluated prospectively over two years in 35 diabetic patients with severe background or preproliferative retinopathy (group 1) and 24 diabetics with mild background retinopathy matched for age, sex, and glycemic control (group 2). In addition, 12 normal subjects were also studied to assess the variability of individual serum IGF-I levels over two years. Mean serum IGF-I (+/- SD) micrograms/l at entry, one year, and two years was not significantly different in the patient groups (157 +/- 71 v 168 +/- 77; 166 +/- 78 v 159 +/- 87; 143 +/- 58 v 159 +/- 67) or when compared with the normal subjects (181 +/- 47, 188 +/- 30; 221 +/- 56). Eight patients in the preproliferative group and none in the mild background group developed proliferative retinopathy. In this subgroup developing retinal neovascularization, serum IGF-I at the time of the first appearance of retinal new vessels was significantly higher than 3 months (1 to 4 months) before the onset of proliferation (271 +/- 94 v 196 +/- 58; P = .036). Values at the time of proliferation were not, however, significantly different from the mean serum IGF-I value of all patients in group 1 and by 4 months (3 to 6 m) had returned to their previous values. Although a transient elevation of IGF-I occurs at the time of retinal new vessel formation, the rise in serum concentration is not sufficiently great or early enough to be of clinical value as a predictor of retinal neovascularization.