The effects of calcium on fasting plasma insulin and glucose levels were compared in 16 normal subjects and 11 patients with beta-cell neoplasms of the pancreas. Calcium was administered iv either as a rapid calcium infusion (RCI; 2 mg/kg in 1 min) or as a long calcium infusion (LCI; 12 mg/kg in 3 h). In normal subjects, the RCI produced a rise in mean plasma insulin from 11 +/- 1 (+/- SEM) microU/ml basally to a peak of 18 +/- 2 microU/ml (P less than 0.001). No consistent pattern of change in insulin levels occurred during the LCI, and plasma glucose levels did not change significantly with either test. In the patients with beta-cell neoplasms, the RCI resulted in a rapid increase in mean plasma insulin from 36 +/- 6 microU/ml to a peak level of 312 +/- 67 microU/ml (P less than 0.002). With the LCI, a more gradual rise in insulin from 35 +/- 11 to 92 +/- 36 microU/ml occurred (P less than 0.002). The mean increase in insulin in the patients with beta-cell neoplasms was significantly greater for the RCI than for the LCI (P less than 0.01). Pronounced increments in plasma insulin occurred in all 11 patients after the RCI, but in only 3 of 8 patients during the LCI. Plasma glucose levels declined significantly from 69 +/- 7 to 56 +/- 8 mg/dl during the RCI (P less than 0.05) and from 69 +/- 8 to 49 +/- 7 mg/dl during the LCI (P less than 0.005). Symptomatic hypoglycemia developed in 3 patients during the LCI but did not occur after the RCI. These data indicate that calcium is a more effective insulin secretagogue in patients with beta-cell neoplasms when administered as an RCI than as an LCI, and suggest that the RCI may be a useful test for the diagnosis of insulin-secreting tumors.