Cells isolated from the trabecular meshwork (TM) of a male glaucoma patient were transformed by transfection with an origin defective mutant of SV40 virus. Transformation dramatically increased the growth rate of these cells (designated HTM-3 cells), allowing biochemical and pharmacological characterization. The HTM-3 cells had cytoskeletal components that were reported to be present in TM tissue and non-transformed TM cells. Vimentin, tubulin and smooth muscle specific alpha-actin, but not desmin, were localized in these cells by immunocytochemistry. The extracellular matrix components collagen types I, III and IV, fibronectin and laminin were found in HTM-3 cells as well as their non-transformed parental cells. As predicted, the protein profile of the HTM-3 cells revealed by two-dimensional gel electrophoresis was different from that of the non-transformed cells, probably due to the enhanced growth characteristics of these cells. Furthermore, HTM-3 cells had various intracellular second messenger systems that responded to pharmacological agents. Forskolin, prostaglandin E2, beta-adrenergic and adenosine A2 agonists stimulated the adenylyl cyclase in these cells, whereas muscarinic, serotonergic, dopaminergic and other agonists were ineffective. Sodium nitroprusside increased the intracellular concentration of cGMP, demonstrating the presence of a functional guanylyl cyclase. Phospholipase C activity in these cells was also detected. Muscarinic agonists, histamine and bradykinin, but not adrenergic, serotonergic agonists or prostaglandins, increased phosphoinositide turnover. These drug responses of HTM-3 cells agree with published data on primary TM cells and TM tissues, suggesting that the transformed cells may be a valid substitute for certain pharmacological studies of TM.