During development, mice with mutations of stem cell factor (SCF) or its receptor c-kit exhibit defects in melanogenesis, as well as hematopoiesis and gonadogenesis. Because melanocytes derive from neural crest cells, the role of SCF and c-kit was investigated in the neural crest-derived childhood tumor neuroblastoma. Using reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction analysis, simultaneous expression of steady-state mRNA for the SCF ligand and its receptor c- kit was found in 14 of 14 (100%) human neuroblastoma cell lines and clones and in 8 of 18 (45%) human neuroblastoma tumor samples. Functional blockade of c-kit receptors in the cell lines SK-N-BE(2) and SH-SY5Y using the mouse monoclonal anti-c-kit antibody SR-1 resulted in a significant decrease in cellular growth rate when measured by either 3H-thymidine incorporation or clonogenicity. In addition, higher levels of c-kit mRNA expression were associated with parental neuroblastoma cell lines and subclones with a neuronal (N) differentiation phenotype, whereas lower levels of c-kit mRNA were associated with neuroblastoma cell line subclones having a schwannian/glial/melanocytic pattern of differentiation. However, the differentiation phenotype of neuroblastoma cell lines was not directly altered when c-kit expression was blocked using the SR-1 antibody. In summary, these data indicate that c-kit receptor expression may play a significant role in the growth regulation of the two neuroblastoma cell lines examined and suggest that c-kit may also play a similar role in neuroblastoma growth regulation in vivo. Simultaneous expression of SCF and c-kit mRNA in both neuroblastoma cell lines and tumors implies that c-kit may act as part of an autocrine growth loop in conjunction with endogenous production of SCF in this disease.