Prostatic growth occurs through ductal elongation and branching into the mesenchyme. Ductal branching morphogenesis in the prostate is elicited by androgens via mesenchymal-epithelial interactions mediated by paracrine influences from mesenchyme. The role of keratinocyte growth factor (KGF) was investigated in the developing prostate as KGF has been suggested to be a paracrine acting factor. KGF transcripts were detected by reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) in neonatal rat ventral prostates (VPs) in vivo, in VPs cultured in vitro, and in isolated VP mesenchyme. KGF receptor was detected in VP's by RT-PCR and was localized specifically to the epithelium by in situ hybridization. KGF was investigated as a potential paracrine mediator during androgen-induced prostatic development by examining neonatal rat VPs cultured for 6 days under serum-free conditions using a basal medium supplemented only with insulin and transferrin. When testosterone (10(-9) to 10(-8) M) was added to the basal medium, VPs grew and underwent ductal branching morphogenesis similar to that in situ. Neutralization of endogenous KGF with a monoclonal antibody to KGF (anti-KGF) or a soluble KGF receptor peptide inhibited androgen-stimulated VP growth (DNA content) and reduced the number of ductal end buds after 6 days of culture. When KGF (50 or 100 ng/ml) was added to the basal medium in the absence of testosterone, VP growth and ductal branching morphogenesis were stimulated. The number of ductal end buds was about 70% of that obtained with an optimal dose of testosterone (10(-8)M), and DNA content of VP's cultured with 100 ng/ml KGF was equivalent to that of glands cultured with testosterone. The stimulatory effect of KGF was partially blocked by cyproterone acetate, a steroidal anti-androgen. These data imply that KGF plays an important role as a mesenchymal paracrine mediator of androgen-induced epithelial growth and ductal branching morphogenesis in the rat VP.