Human decidua synthesizes and secretes PRL. We identified the PRL synthesized in endometrial stromal cells and investigated the effect of medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA), estradiol (E2), porcine relaxin (RLX), and RU486, an antiprogestin, on PRL production by stromal cells from non-pregnant endometrium in primary culture. Stromal cells were isolated from proliferative and secretory endometria and individually cultured in nutrient medium or medium supplemented with different hormone(s). The immunoreactive PRL isolated from culture medium of hormone-stimulated stromal cells was identified and compared to pituitary PRL. Bio-Gel elution pattern and mol wt analysis on sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis followed by immunoblotting showed that PRL produced by stromal cells had properties identical to those of pituitary PRL. In addition, PRL mRNA was identified in hormone-stimulated stromal cells using human pituitary PRL cDNA as a hybridization probe. Analysis of mRNA by Northern blotting showed that the size of PRL mRNA isolated from stromal cells was indistinguishable from that of PRL mRNA in human decidua and pituitary tissue. These results indicated that PRL measured in culture medium was synthesized de novo by stromal cells. The PRL content in culture medium was quantitated by RIA. The PRL production rate in stromal cells cultured without hormones ranged from 6-10 ng/day.mg cell protein. After 4-5 days of incubation with RLX or MPA alone, the PRL production rate increased about 2- to 3-fold over the control value. E2 alone had either no effect or slightly decreased the stromal cell PRL production rate. Stromal cells responded to 0.02 microM MPA, and the maximal response was at 0.1-1 microM MPA. A further increase in PRL production was found when stromal cells were treated with a combination of MPA and E2 and MPA, E2 and RLX. In the presence of MPA or MPA and E2, 0.1 ng/ml relaxin increased the PRL production rate. A potent progestin antagonist, RU486, inhibited PRL production in stromal cells treated with MPA, MPA and E2, or MPA and RLX. These results indicate that endometrial PRL production is regulated by the combined effects of steroid hormones (progestin and estrogen) and a peptide hormone (relaxin).