The insulin-like growth factors (IGF-I and -II) are structurally related peptides participating in the regulation of metabolism, growth and cellular differentiation. In the present study, the human hepatoma cell line PLC was studied for the expression of individual components of the IGF axis. Northern blot analysis using IGF-I and -II coding cDNAs failed to detect IGF-I- or -II-specific transcripts in total RNA from PLC cells. Biosynthesis of type I and II IGF receptors was demonstrated by northern blotting and binding studies as well as cross-linking of the respective radiolabeled ligand. Both IGF-I and -II stimulated [3H]-thymidine incorporation dose-dependently. The mitogenic activity of exogenously added IGFs was reduced by the presence of IGF-binding proteins of 24, 30, 34, 41 and 45 kDa in supernatants of PLC cells identified as IGFBP-4, -1, -2 and -3, respectively, by [125I]IGF-I ligand-, immuno- and northern blotting. Biosynthesis of IGFBP-3 was stimulated dose-dependently by IGF-I and -II, while IGFBP-1, -2 and -4 were not affected. The increase of IGFBP-3 in response to IGF-I and -II was due to a stimulation of IGFBP-3 specific mRNA as well as to an inhibition of IGFBP-3 endocytosis. Proteolytic activity for rhIGFBP-3 was detected in media from PLC cells at acidic pH that was inhibited by the aspartyl protease inhibitor pepstatin A as well as after immunodepletion of cathepsin D from media of PLC cells. Thus, a role of cathepsin D for the regulation of IGFBP-3 bioavailability via endocytosis in acidic prelysosomal compartments was suggested. The susceptibility of PLC for IGF-I and -II was restricted by their ability to increase the abundance of inhibitory IGFBPs and to decrease the level of IGF-I receptor expression. The present data point to the IGF axis as a complex regulatory system that self limits the mitogenic activity of exogenous IGFs.