The activation of proliferation of rat liver hepatic stellate cells (HSC) in cooperation with hepatocytes (PC) was studied using a coculture system and cell-conditioned media, respectively. The proliferation of HSC was followed by incorporation of [3H] thymidine and BrdU into DNA and by DNA content per culture. Strong stimulation of HSC proliferation was noticed under reduced fetal calf serum (FCS) conditions (0.2%) during a 48-hour coculture with PC, rat hepatoma, human hepatoma, and transforming growth factor (TGF)-alpha-transgenic mouse PC, respectively. The extent of stimulation was frequently higher than that observed by the addition of 10% FCS. Transformed HSC (myofibroblasts) could also be stimulated by cocultured PC, but the magnitude of activation was lower than that of (untransformed) HSC. Using radioreceptor assays, we could demonstrate significant concentrations of insulinlike growth factor (IGF)-1 (300 ng/10(6) cells x 48 hours) and quite lower concentrations of bFGF and TGF-alpha in the hepatocyte-conditioned media (PCcM), whereas IGF-2 was not detectable. With anti-IGF-1 neutralizing antibody, the stimulatory activity of PCcM could be reduced by approximately 50%. PCcM, which mimics the effects of cocultures and supports strongly the action of exogenous IGF-1 on HSC proliferation, leaving that of other cytokines (TGF-alpha, IL-1 alpha, bFGF, aFGF, TNF-alpha), added either separately or in various combinations, uninfluenced. The latter cytokines were without significant effects on HSC proliferation. The mitogenic activity of cytokine combinations containing IGF-1 could be enhanced severalfold by limiting amounts of PCcM. Maximum stimulation of cell proliferation of 40-fold above control cultures was reached by IGF-1 in combination with TGF-alpha and bFGF in presence of diluted PCcM, which is approximately 6-fold higher than in the absence of PCcM. [125I] IGF-1 added to PCcM was bound by more than 90% to carrier proteins. The results confirm in cocultures strong mitogenic activation of HSC by PC. It is suggested that IGF-1 and respective IGF-binding proteins are of great importance in the mitogenic signal transfer between hepatocytes and hepatic stellate cells.