The aetiology of most cases of childhood leukaemia remains unknown, but several studies have indicated that increased birthweight and height are risk factors for the disease. Since insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) mediates the effect of growth hormone and has been positively associated with prostate cancer, we have evaluated the role of this hormone and its principal binding protein, IGFBP-3, in the aetiology of childhood leukaemia. Incident cases of childhood leukaemia from those recorded by a national network of childhood oncologists were enrolled in our study. Controls were children hospitalised for acute conditions of no more than moderate severity with matching for gender, age and maternal place of residence. Blood measurements of IGF-I and IGFBP-3 were undertaken using commercially available radioimmunoassays. Serum IGF-I values decreased by about 1.7% per month, and the rate of decline was higher, though not significantly so, among cases (2.1% per month) than among controls (1.4%). There was no significant association between IGF-I and the likelihood of childhood leukaemia, but an increment of 1 microg/ml of IGFBP-3 was associated with a substantial and statistically significant reduction of childhood leukaemia by 28% (95% confidence interval 7% to 45%). Because IGFBP-3 is essentially a binding protein, we interpret our findings as indicating that bioavailable IGF-I may play an important role in the aetiology of childhood leukaemia. The much smaller quantities and the inherent instability of IGF-I in the blood in comparison to those of IGFBP-3 are likely to hinder documentation of an underlying positive association of IGF-I with the disease.