We have investigated the effects of metformin treatment on concentrations of proinsulin-like molecules in subjects with Type 2 (non-insulin-dependent) diabetes mellitus. Metformin was given for 12 weeks in an increasing dose up to 850 mg three times daily in a double-blind placebo-controlled cross-over design to 27 subjects (age 53.0 +/- 9.9 years; 19 male, 8 female). Concentrations of insulin and proinsulin-like molecules were measured by highly specific enzymoimmunometric assays. The end of metformin treatment was compared with end of placebo treatment. Metformin lowered fasting plasma glucose concentrations (at 12 weeks, metformin: 8.0 +/- 2.5 vs placebo: 12.0 +/- 2.3 mmol l-1, p r2 0.001;). Concentrations of intact (median change -2.9 (range -28.4 to +2.5 pmol l-1), p = 0.02) and des 31,32 proinsulin (median change -1.6 (range -14.1 to +5.4 pmol l-1), p = 0.07) and percentage of proinsulin-like molecules were reduced by metformin treatment (median change -6% (range -16% to +6%), p = 0.02). Changes in the ratio of proinsulin-like molecules were significantly related with those in fasting plasma glucose (r1 = 0.69, p < 0.001). Changes in concentrations of intact and des 31,32 proinsulin on metformin were not related to changes in body mass index or fasting glucose concentration or changes in concentrations of total triglyceride, cholesterol, and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1. Therefore, metformin treatment in subjects with Type 2 diabetes mellitus significantly reduced concentrations of proinsulin-like molecules over a 12-week period. However, these changes were not related to changes in cardiovascular risk factors seen during metformin treatment. We conclude that short-term effects of metformin treatment on proinsulin-like molecules are similar to those previously observed with dietary treatment in subjects with Type 2 diabetes but opposite to those of sulphonylurea treatment. The effect of long-term treatment with metformin on proinsulin-like molecules needs to be assessed.