Children with chronic renal failure (CRF) are often growth recarded despite normal serum levels of GH and insulin-like growth factors (IGFs). Recent studies suggest that excess IGF-binding proteins (IGFBPs) in the 35-kDa fractions of CRF serum contribute to CRF growth failure. This report characterizes the relationship between IGFBP-3 and IGF peptides in the serum of growth-retarded CRF children. Size-exclusion chromatography at pH 7.4 found IGFBP-3 and IGFs almost exclusively in the 150-kDa fractions of normal serum, where their molar stoichiometry was approximately 1:1. However, similar chromatography of CRF serum found a molar excess of IGFBP-3 over total IGFs in the 150-kDa fractions and large amounts of IGFs in the 35-kDa fractions. In the 150-kDa fractions of CRF serum, IGFBP-3 was present in normal amounts, but a greater than normal amount was in the form of a 29-kDa IGFBP-3 fragment. Treatment of these CRF children with recombinant human GH increased the molar excess of IGFBP-3 over total IGFs in the 150-kDa fractions, the amount of IGFBP-3 and total IGFs in the 150-kDa fractions, and the amount of IGFs, but not IGFBPs, in the 35-kDa fractions. These data suggest that in untreated CRF children, proteolysis of IGFBP-3 in the 150-kDa fractions releases IGFs to the excess IGFBPs in the 35-kDa fractions, but insufficient IGF is released to overcome the growth-inhibiting effects of these excess IGFBPs. Treatment with recombinant human GH increases levels of IGFs and IGFBP-3 in the 150-kDa fractions, and subsequent IGFBP-3 proteolysis releases sufficient IGF to overcome the growth inhibitory effects of excess IGFBPs in the 35-kDa fractions of CRF serum.