In adrenocortical tumors, the malignant phenotype is associated with rearrangements (paternal isodisomy) at the 11p15 locus and IGF-II gene overexpression, strongly suggesting that the IGF system is a major determinant of adrenocortical tumor progression. The aim of this study was to validate an in vitro model for investigating the involvement of the IGF system in adrenocortical tumorigenesis. We analyzed the production of IGF mRNA and proteins, IGF-binding proteins (IGFBPs) and IGF receptors by the NCI H295R cell line, which is derived from a human adult adrenocortical carcinoma. H295R cells were shown to proliferate for a long period (26 days) in the absence of serum or any added growth factor. Northern blot analyses showed high IGF-II mRNA contents in H295R cells. The cells secreted large amounts of IGF-II protein (14 ng/10(6) cells per 48 h) although no IGF-I protein was detected. Western ligand blot analyses of conditioned media detected the presence of large amounts of a 34 kDa protein, which was identified as IGFBP-2 by immunoblotting. The presence of high-affinity binding sites for IGF-I and IGF-II on H295R cells was shown by binding experiments using radiolabeled IGFs and confirmed by reverse transcription PCR analyses showing type 1 and type 2 IGF receptors. Proliferation of H295R cells was inhibited by anti-IGF-II antibody (45%) and by anti-type 1 IGF receptor antibody (53%) indicating that IGF-II is an autocrine growth factor for these cells and that its effects are, at least in part, mediated by the type 1 IGF receptor. These findings confirm the involvement of the IGF system in adrenocortical tumors and suggest that the H295R cell line is a suitable in vitro model for studying the molecular mechanisms of adrenocortical tumor proliferation.