In the normal pituitary, glucocorticoids are the principal negative regulator of the pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) gene which gives rise to the biologically active peptides ACTH and β-endorphin. In Cushing's syndrome, ACTH-secreting pituitary tumours show a degree of glucocorticoid resistance, whilst ACTH-secreting extra-pituitary tumours have an even greater resistance to glucocorticoid excess. In an attempt to understand the mechanism of this phenomenon, we have compared the effects of glucocorticoids on POMC mRNA and peptide secretion in human and mouse corticotroph adenoma cells and in small cell lung carcinoma (SCLC) cells. ACTH precursor peptides were inhibited within 24 h by 25–50 nm hydrocortisone in primary cultures from a human corticotroph adenoma. In the mouse corticotroph adenoma cell line (AtT20), inhibition of both ACTH precursors and ACTH was not observed after 24 h but, by 10 days, glucocorticoids suppressed peptide levels with a concentration causing 50% inhibition of 50 nm hydrocortisone and maximal inhibition at 500 nm hydrocortisone. In marked contrast, there was no response to 500 nm hydrocortisone in the five SCLC cell lines (COR L103, COR L42, COR L24, COR L31, DMS 79) all of which secrete ACTH precursors. However, two of the five SCLC cell lines (COR L31 and DMS 79) were responsive to 1000 nm hydrocortisone. POMC mRNA, quantitated by slot-blot analysis, gave similar results for the five SCLC cell lines, implying that the abnormality may occur at the level of gene expression. When one of the three resistant cell lines (COR L103) was incubated with 2000 nm hydrocortisone or 2000 nm dexamethasone a clear suppression of precursor peptides and POMC mRNA was observed. This suggests that the resistance to glucocorticoid inhibition is relative rather than absolute, implying that the normal mechanism is functioning but impaired. Furthermore, there is at least a 20-fold difference in the responsiveness to glucocorticoid inhibition between pituitary and extra-pituitary tumour cells in vitro, which may signify a difference in the underlying mechanism in these two cell types.