Parathyroid hormone-related protein (PTHrP), a likely mediator for humoral hypercalcemia of malignancy, is also synthesized in various normal tissues. In the kidney, PTHrP, mainly detected in proximal and distal tubules, has been shown to stimulate proliferation of rat mesangial cells in culture. Experiments were carried out to investigate the possible mitogenic effect of PTHrP in cultures of rabbit proximal tubule cells (PTC). Immunocytochemical analysis, using antihuman (h)PTHrP antibodies to (38-64) and (107-111) epitopes in the PTHrP molecule, showed strong cytoplasmic staining in PTC and proximal tubule-like LLC-PK1 cells. PTC secreted immunoreactive PTHrP (54.8 +/- 7.0 fmol/10(6) cells) into the culture medium. Human PTHrP(1-141) stimulated proliferation in subconfluent cultures of these cells dose-dependently. This effect was similar to that induced by [Tyr34]hPTHrP(1-34) amide (hPTHrP[1-34]), hPTHrP(1-86), and bovine (b)PTH(1-34), while hPTHrP(38-64) amide, hPTHrP9107-111) amide, and hPTHrP(107-139) amide were ineffective. Addition of anti-hPTHrP neutralizing antibodies to (1-34), (38-64), and (107-111) epitopes of PTHrP decreased PTC growth. The mitogenic effect of these agonists was abolished in confluent PTC. In contrast, [Nle8,18, Tyr34]bPTH(3-34)amide (bPTH[3-34]) increased DNA synthesis in either subconfluent or confluent PTC. In LLC-PK1 cells, which also secreted PTHrP and are devoid of PTH receptors, none of these peptides affected proliferation. Forskolin (10 microM) or H-8 (2 microM), a protein kinase A inhibitor, did not affect basal or hPTHrP(1-34)-stimulated DNA synthesis, respectively, in subconfluent PTC. On the other hand, 10 nM staurosporine and 100 nM calphostin C, protein kinase C (PKC) inhibitors, blunted the effects of hPTHrP(1-34) or bPTH(3-34) on DNA synthesis in these cells. These studies suggest that PTHrP may function as an autocrine factor in the regulation of proximal tubule cell growth by a PKC-mediated mechanism.