Cultured hepatic stellate cells (HSCs), the cell type primarily involved in the progression of liver fibrosis, secrete insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) and IGF binding protein (IGFBP) activity. IGF-I exerts a mitogenic effect on HSCs, thus potentially contributing to the fibrogenic process in an autocrine fashion. However, IGF-I action is modulated by the presence of specific IGFBPs that may inhibit and/or enhance its biologic effects. Therefore, we examined IGFBP-1 through IGFBP-6 mRNA and protein expression in HSCs isolated from human liver and activated in culture. Regulation of IGFBPs in response to IGF-I and other polypeptide growth factors involved in the hepatic fibrogenic process was also assessed. RNase protection assays and ligand blot analysis demonstrated that HSCs express IGFBP-2 through IGFBP-6 mRNAs and release detectable levels of IGFBP-2 through IGFBP-5. Because IGF-I, platelet-derived growth factor-BB (PDGF-BB), and transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) stimulate HSC proliferation and/or matrix production, we tested their effect on IGFBPs released by HSCs. IGF-I induced IGFBP-3 and IGFBP-5 proteins in a time-dependent manner without an increase in the corresponding mRNAs. IGFBP-4 protein levels decreased in response to IGF-I. TGF-beta stimulated IGFBP-3 mRNA and protein but decreased IGFBP-5 mRNA and protein. In contrast, PDGF-BB failed to regulate IGFBPs compared with controls. Recombinant human IGFBP-3 (rhIGFBP-3) was then tested for its effect on IGF-I-induced mitogenesis in HSCs. rhIGFBP-3 inhibited IGF-I-stimulated DNA synthesis in a dose-dependent manner, with a peak effect observed at 25 nM IGFBP-3. Because TGF-beta is highly expressed in cirrhotic liver tissue, we determined whether IGFBP-3 mRNA expression is increased in liver biopsies obtained from patients with an active fibroproliferative response due to viral-induced chronic active hepatitis. In the majority of these samples, IGFBP-3 mRNA was increased compared with normal controls. These findings indicate that human HSCs, in their activated phenotype, constitutively produce IGFBPs. IGF-I and TGF-beta differentially regulate IGFBP-3, IGFBP-4, and IGFBP-5 expression, which, in turn, may modulate the in vitro and in vivo action of IGF-I.