We compared the proliferative rates of vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMC) from pulmonary arteries of pulmonary hypertensive fawn-hooded rats (FHR) with VSMC from normotensive Sprague-Dawley rats (SDR). VSMC from FHR grew at increased rates and reached higher densities at all serum concentrations studied (5-20%) than the VSMC from SDR. The VSMC from FHR also responded to epidermal growth factor (EGF) at low serum concentrations, as evidenced by significantly greater DNA synthetic rates, than the control VSMC. The increased growth in these cells could be due to increased number and/or affinity of EGF receptors because of the higher specific binding of 125I-EGF to the VSMC from FHR. The VSMC from FHR and SDR were equally sensitive to the antiproliferative effects of heparin, suggesting that the heparin-sensitive pathways are not altered in the VSMC from FHR. These results suggest that the development of pulmonary hypertension in FHR may be related to the higher proliferative capacity of the pulmonary VSMC, which may be coupled to increased activity of the EGF receptors on these cells.