We examined the mitogenic, chemoinvasive, and chemotactic effects of hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) toward normal and neoplastic human epithelial cells derived from the bronchial mucosa. Primary cultures of human bronchial epithelial cells (HBE cells), immortalized bronchial epithelial cells (IB3-1 cells), and cells derived from a squamous cell carcinoma of the lung (128-88T cells) were used as targets. HGF was mitogenic for all three cell types as measured by bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU) labeling and colony-forming efficiency (CFE). With the use of BrdU labeling, 9.8-16.8% of nuclei were labeled in controls vs. 56.9-65.6% labeled nuclei in cells treated with HGF. HGF stimulated colony formation 3.6-6.2-fold over untreated control. Analysis by reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction demonstrated the presence of the c-met gene, the receptor for HGF, in all three cell types. Cell lysates from all three cell types contained proteins that were recognized by a c-met antibody as determined by Western blotting. The gene for HGF was not expressed in any of the cell types, although it was expressed in control MRC5 fibroblasts. No HGF protein could be detected by Western blotting in the conditioned medium from epithelial cells, although it was readily detectable in medium conditioned by lung fibroblasts. HGF proved to be a powerful chemotactic agent for all three cell types and also stimulated invasion into Matrigel, an artificial basement membrane. The results indicate HGF acts mainly as a paracrine growth factor for cells derived from the human bronchus, and may play a role in the growth and progression of lung tumors.