Multiple myeloma cell lines express functional receptors for insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) and several cell types that make up the bone marrow microenvironment produce these cytokines. This suggests that IGFs may play a role in survival and/or expansion of the malignant clone within the marrow in patients with multiple myeloma. We tested the effects of these growth factors on myeloma cells challenged with dexamethasone. Dye exclusion and MTT assays demonstrated that both IGF-I and IGF-II protected the 8226 and dox-40 myeloma cell lines and three primary myeloma cultures from dexamethasone-induced cytotoxicity in a dose-dependent fashion. Morphologic studies of target cells and their nuclei as well as DNA electrophoresis confirmed the IGFs afforded protection against dexamethasone-induced apoptosis. Insulin also protected but was less impressive and required much higher concentrations. IGFs also protected against cycloheximide-induced apoptosis but were ineffective against serum starvation, topoisomerase II inhibitors, or anti-fas antibodies. IGF-induced protection against dexamethasone was not associated with any alteration in quantitative or qualitative expression of BCL-2, BAX or BCL-X proteins. These data indicate that insulin-like growth factors may play a role in maintenance of the malignant clone in patients with myeloma by protecting tumour cells from apoptotic death.