We compared the glucose-lowering effect of proinsulin, the precursor molecule of insulin, with that of insulin itself. In patients with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) in whom proinsulin (0.2 U per kilogram of body weight) was subcutaneously injected at 9 a.m., fasting glucose levels (247 +/- 22 mg per deciliter [+/- SEM]) became normal within six hours and elevated rates of hepatic glucose output were lowered. The response to regular insulin (0.2 U per kilogram) was of similar magnitude but faster. Glucose clearance was stimulated less by proinsulin, reflecting its preferential action in suppressing glucose output. Hypoglycemia occurred in five of nine insulin-treated patients, but in only one of nine proinsulin-treated patients. After proinsulin injection at bedtime (30.5 +/- 4 U), serum proinsulin concentrations reached a peak by five hours and declined gradually thereafter. Fasting hepatic glucose output became normal, and euglycemia was sustained without overnight hypoglycemia. Proinsulin reduced plasma glucose more effectively than an equal unit dosage of NPH insulin, but since higher doses of NPH insulin were not used, no conclusions could be drawn about the relative desirability of these preparations for clinical use. We conclude that subcutaneously injected proinsulin has prolonged pharmacokinetics in plasma and can normalize plasma glucose in NIDDM characterized by severe hyperglycemia; as compared with the hypoglycemic effects of regular insulin, those of proinsulin are mostly due to suppression of hepatic glucose output, with little stimulation of glucose disposal and less hypoglycemia; and proinsulin may have a role in the treatment of NIDDM.