Diabetes mellitus in patients receiving hypertransfusion for thalassemia major is usually attributed to damage to beta cells. To determine whether iron overload leads to insulin resistance before the development of insulin deficiency, insulin was infused (by euglycemic insulin-clamp technique) into 12 children with thalassemia (4 of whom were prepubertal, and 8 pubertal) who had normal or only moderately impaired glucose tolerance and who were receiving chelation therapy. Although insulin-stimulated glucose metabolism in the prepubertal children with thalassemia was similar to that in controls (normal prepubertal children) (319 +/- 23 vs. 314 +/- 41 mg per square meter of body-surface area per minute, P not significant), the response to insulin was markedly impaired in the pubertal children with thalassemia (155 +/- 18 vs. 224 +/- 15 mg per square meter per minute in normal pubertal controls, P less than 0.01). Plasma insulin levels rose excessively after oral glucose administration in the pubertal subjects with thalassemia, but not in the prepubertal patients (P less than 0.001). Furthermore, in response to a standard hyperglycemic stimulus, insulin levels in the pubertal patients rose to two to three times greater than normal and C-peptide levels became significantly elevated. Our data suggest that insulin resistance and increased insulin secretion develop in older children with thalassemia treated with long-term hypertransfusion therapy before the development of diabetes.