A new hematopoietic growth factor (Steel factor) has been identified which stimulates erythroid proliferation both in vitro and in vivo. We evaluated the influence of recombinant Steel factor on hemoglobin synthesis in peripheral blood (PB) BFU-E-derived cells from normal donors by radioimmunoassay (RIA) and compared it with stimulation with GM-CSF and interleukin-3 (IL-3). Only Steel factor stimulated a significant increase in BFU-E-derived colony size and a significant increase in fetal hemoglobin (HbF) in BFU-E-derived erythroblasts from 0.49% +/- 0.27% to 6.33% +/- 1.11% in serum-deprived media and from 1.88% +/- 0.24% to 11.17% +/- 0.91% in serum. To determine whether this influence on hemoglobinization also occurred in sickle cell disease, we studied 13 patients with sickle cell disease. In serum-deprived conditions, there was a significant increase in the number and size of BFU-E-derived colonies with Steel factor that was dose-dependent. In addition, the proportion of HbF in progenitor-derived cells increased by 66% from 4.1% +/- 0.6% to 6.8% +/- 1.2% with Steel factor. In serum- containing conditions studied in 12 patients, the increase in percentage of HbF was even greater, from 10.7% +/- 0.9% in control cultures to 22.5% +/- 2.6% with Steel factor. These increases in percentage of HbF were significant and dose-dependent. An increase in percentage of HbF was observed in erythroblasts harvested on day 11, 14, and 18 of culture. A decrease in mean picograms of total Hb per cell after coculture with Steel factor was noted, suggesting that growth kinetics influenced complete hemoglobinization. In serum- deprived conditions, picograms of HbF per cell was not affected by Steel factor, and in serum-containing conditions that augment in vitro HbF production it was enhanced. Thus, Steel factor stimulated a significant increase in percentage of HbF in erythroid cells from normal donors and patients with SCA in vitro.