One of the loci encoding susceptibility to insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) is IDDM2, mapped to a variable number of tandem repeats (VNTR) polymorphism situated 596 bp upstream of the insulin gene (INS). The shorter alleles (class I) predispose to IDDM, while the longer class III alleles are protective. Besides INS, it is possible that transcription levels of IGF2, the nearby gene encoding the insulin-like growth factor II, may be modulated by allelic forms of the VNTR. In an effort to define the pathophysiologic mechanism of the IDDM2 effect, we examined the effect, in cis, of VNTR genotype on steady-state mRNA levels of INS in samples of human fetal pancreas, and of IGF2 in leucocytes of diabetic children. Relative levels of mRNA transcripts derived from each chromosome carrying a defined VNTR allele were measured by RT-PCR, taking advantage of transcribed polymorphisms at the 3' untranslated region of each gene. In 10 samples of human fetal pancreas, INS transcripts from chromosomes carrying a class III VNTR were slightly but significantly (P = 0.015) lower than those from class I (13% lower, 95% confidence limits 3-21%). In 10 leucocyte samples, mRNA from both IGF2 alleles was seen, indicating relaxation of the parental imprinting of IGF2 in these cells. However, this relaxation was incomplete as maternal allele mRNA was systematically at a lower level than paternal. The paternal/maternal ratio varied widely among individual subjects. Two of the most extreme cases, demonstrating almost complete repression of the maternal allele, were identical twins, suggesting that this variable relaxation of imprinting is genotype-dependent. However, this genotype-dependence cannot be accounted for by the maternal VNTR, as the mean ratios of paternal/maternal IGF2 mRNA levels were not statistically different in individuals with a maternal VNTR of class I vs. class III (3.2 +/- 1.5 vs. 3.89 +/- 0.94). Thus, we present evidence that: (a) class III VNTR alleles are associated with lower INS mRNA in fetal pancreas than class I alleles. The biologic importance of this difference remains to be determined; and (b) the variable relaxation of IGF2 imprinting seen in human leucocytes is not dependent on the presence of a class I vs. a class III VNTR.