The murine anti-bombesin monoclonal antibody, 2A11, has been demonstrated to inhibit growth of some small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) cells in nude mice xenografts and in a clinical trial. To determine if the expression of bombesin-like peptides (BLP) and their receptors (GRP-R and NMB-R) correlate with an in vitro response to 2A11, we measured these parameters in seven SCLC cell lines. Gastrin releasing peptide (GRP) mRNA was detected in three of seven cell lines (NCI-H69, NCI-H345, NCI-H510) and neuromedin B (NMB) mRNA was detected in all seven lines using an RNase protection assay (RPA). Immunoreactive BLP was detected in the cell pellets of all lines (range 0.11-59.90 pmol/mg protein) by a solid phase GRP radioimmunoassay (RIA) using 125I-labeled 2A11. RPA detected GRP-receptor mRNA in two cell lines (NCI-H69 and NCI-H345) and NMB-receptor in three lines (NCI-H345, NCI-H510, and NCI-H660). Reverse transcriptase-PCR confirmed the presence of receptor mRNA in these lines and detected NMB-receptor in an additional three lines (NCI-H69, NCI-H82, and NCI-H187). Calcium mobilization in response to BLP stimulation was detected in the six cell lines expressing either GRP-R or NMB-R mRNA but not in NCI-N417, which had no detectable BLP-receptor. 2A11 (5 microg/ml) inhibited colony formation by 26-61% after 2 weeks in all cell lines except NCI-N417. Thus, growth inhibition by 2A11 requires the presence of at least one BLP-receptor. These findings may be useful in selecting patients with SCLC for treatment with 2A11.