We have compared the expression of insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) and IGF binding proteins (IGFBPs) in ten paired samples of normal and tumour colonic tissue with regard to both mRNA and protein. We have compared sensitivity of these tissues to IGF-I using primary cultures of epithelial cells of colonic mucosa, and we have examined the production of IGFs and IGFBPs by these cells. In the tissues, IGFBP-2 mRNA was expressed in all normal and cancer samples but other IGFBPs showed variable expression. mRNAs for IGF-I were expressed in all normal and cancer tissues but IGF-II mRNA was only detected in cancer tissue (3 out of 10). Immunostaining of sections of normal and cancer tissue was negative for IGF-I and IGF-II; IGFBP-2 was positive in 2 out of 10 cancer tissues and 7 out of 10 normal tissues; IGFBP-3 was positive in 7 out of 10 cancer tissues and 7 out of 10 normal tissues; and IGFBP-4 was positive in 5 out of 10 cancer tissues and 6 out of 10 normal tissues. In the cells in culture, cancer cells showed increased incorporation of [35S]methionine into protein and [3H]thymidine into DNA (P < 0.02) when treated with IGF-I. Western blotting of serum-free conditioned media from cells in culture showed that 8 out of 10 normal and 3 out of 10 cancer cultures produced a 32-kDa immunoreactive IGFBP-2. No IGFBP-3 was secreted by any culture but 24-kDa IGFBP-4 was found in 3 out of 10 normal and 5 out of 10 cancer tissues. Because of the discrepancy between mRNA and protein expression for IGFBP-2, degradation of native IGFBPs was assessed using tissue extracts. Colon cancer extracts were able to degrade exogenous IGFBP-2, IGFBP-3 and IGFBP-4, whereas normal tissue extracts were without effect on IGFBP-2. We conclude that IGFBPs are synthesized and secreted by cells of the colonic mucosa but that proteolysis of secreted IGFBP-2 occurs in colon cancer tissue. This selective degradation may confer a growth advantage.