Human colon cancer cell lines COLO205, HT29 and SW620 are known to secrete insulin-like growth factor II (IGF-II) and its modulatory binding proteins (IGFBPs). We have characterised the sensitivity of these cell lines to exogenous IGF-I and have examined the effects of their autocrine IGFBPs on these responses. Cells cultured in serum-free medium were treated with 1-100 ng/ml IGF-I, or des(1,3)IGF-I, a truncated IGF-I with low affinity for IGFBPs. DNA synthesis was determined by 24 h incorporation of 3H-thymidine. Experiments were repeated in the presence of 24 h cell-conditioned media containing endogenous IGFBPs. In all 3 cell lines, cell-conditioned media reduced sensitivity to IGF-I but not to des(1,3)IGF-I suggesting that IGFBPs in the cell-conditioned media of colon cells inhibit IGF-I action. IGFBPs in the cell layer and 24 h cell-conditioned media were identified by Western ligand and antibody analyses. IGFBP-4 was secreted by all cell lines and IGFBP-2 from the COLO205 and SW620 cells lines but not the HT29 cells. No IGFBP-3 was secreted by any of the cell lines but IGFBP-3 was found in the cell layer in all of the cell lines. When endogenous secreted IGFBPs were removed, cell lines were consistently more sensitive to IGF-I than des(1,3)IGF-I suggesting that IGFBP-3 associated with the cell layer enhances responses to IGF-I. This is in contrast to the effects of the secreted IGFBPs. Differential modulating actions of IGFBPs may be important in regulating colon cell turnover.