Human stem cell factor (SCF) acts in the presence of other growth factors to stimulate the growth of primitive hematopoietic progenitor cells. These effects are performed by activation of the SCF receptor, c- kit. Because of the potential use of SCF in patients undergoing chemotherapy and bone marrow transplantation, the effect of SCF on nonhematopoietic tumors requires investigation. To determine whether human tumor cell lines display c-kit receptors, we performed binding experiments with 125I-SCF on a breast carcinoma cell line (Du4475), a gastric carcinoma cell line (KATO III), a melanoma cell line (HTT144), as well as two small cell lung carcinoma cell lines (H69 and H128). The biologic effect of SCF on tumor cell lines was assessed by its ability to stimulate tritiated thymidine uptake and to enhance colony growth in methylcellulose. The breast carcinoma cell line, Du4475, as well as two small cell lung carcinoma cell lines, H69 and H128, exhibit high- affinity c-kit receptors with approximate binding affinities of 40, 100, and 90 pmol/L, respectively. The number of high-affinity receptors per cell ranged from 700 to 9,500. The gastric carcinoma cell line, as well as the melanoma cell line, showed trace binding of 125I-SCF. In the presence of SCF alone, or in combination with granulocyte- macrophage colony-stimulating factor or interleukin-3, there was less than a 17% increase in the colony growth of Du4475, H69, or H128 cell lines. Postulating that the lack of growth response could be secondary to endogenous SCF production by the tumor cell lines, we used an RNAse protection assay to determine whether the tumor cell lines contain SCF messenger RNA (mRNA). In addition, we tested tumor cell line supernatants for the presence of secreted SCF protein by enzyme immunoassay, and analyzed the tumor cell lines for membrane-bound SCF by indirect immunofluorescence. Our results show that the Du4475, H69, and H128 cell lines, as well as a melanoma cell line (HTT144), have multiple copies of SCF mRNA. Soluble SCF protein was detected in the cell supernatants in the Du4475 and H69 cell lines and SCF was found on the surface of all four cell lines. These data show that some human solid tumor cell lines display high-affinity c-kit receptors and produce SCF, which can be detected on the cell surface. These results suggest the possibility that autocrine production of SCF by c-kit receptor-bearing tumor cells may enhance cell growth in tumor cell lines.