The insulin-like growth factors I and II (IGF-I, -II) are circulating peptides known to participate in the regulation of metabolism, growth, and cellular differentiation. In the present study, "early cultured" (days 2-3 of culture) and "culture-activated" (days 6-7 of culture) rat hepatic stellate cells (HSCs) were analyzed for expression of individual components of the IGF axis. Northern blot analysis of IGF-I messenger RNA (mRNA) revealed transcripts of 7.5, 4, 2, and 1.0 to 1.5 kb in culture-activated HSCs, while early cultured HSCs did not express IGF-I mRNA. In culture-activated HSCs, an IGF-I secretion of 8.3+/-2.5 ng/10(6) cells per 24 hours was determined radioimmunologically. In media from early cultured HSCs, IGF-I was not detectable. The IGF-I receptor (IGF-I-R) mRNA expression was three-fold higher in early cultured HSCs than in culture-activated HSCs. By immunohistochemistry, a decrease of IGF-I-R expression of HSCs in vivo following CCl4-induced liver damage was noted as well. IGF binding proteins (IGFBPs) were detected in conditioned media from HSCs by 125I-IGF-I ligand blotting at apparent molecular masses of 24 and 41 to 45 kd that were immunologically identified as IGFBP-4 and -3, respectively. Synthesis of these IGFBPs increased with time of culture. At neutral pH, no IGFBP proteolysis was observed in conditioned media of early cultured and culture-activated HSCs, whereas at acidic pH, protease activities against IGFBP-3 and -4 were detectable. IGFBP protease activities were completely abolished by inhibitors of aspartyl and cysteine proteases. Addition of 100 nmol/L IGF-I stimulated cell proliferation of early cultured HSCs 5.6+/-1.1- and 4.6+/-0.2-fold as measured by [3H]thymidine and 5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine incorporation, respectively. In culture-activated HSCs, proliferation was increased 1.2+/-0.1-fold in the presence of 100 nmol/L IGF-I in both proliferation assays. It can be concluded that due to a higher expression of the IGF-I-R and lower levels of IGFBPs, early cultured HSCs are more susceptible to the mitogenic actions of IGFs than the culture-activated HSCs. The present data suggest a role for the IGF axis components in the initiation rather than the perpetuation of HSC proliferation during hepatic fibrogenesis.