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It has been proposed that benign nevi that fail to differentiate normally may undergo stepwise growth and morphologic changes resulting in progression toward dysplastic nevi, which in some cases progress into malignant melanoma. In this study, we sought to determine the relationship between production of endogenous growth factors and the appearance of chromosomal abnormalities in cultured nevi and melanomas. Newly established cultures from 8 nevi with benign histology and 6 malignant melanomas, and 2 malignant melanoma cell lines were studied. Assays for mitogenic growth factors were based on stimulation of [3H]thymidine incorporation into DNA in Hs0294 malignant melanoma cells, produced by serum-free conditioned medium from nevus or melanoma cultures. Karyotypes were examined in cultures of an equivalent passage. Three of the 8 nevus cultures were mitogen-negative and displayed normal karyotypes; one nevus culture was mitogen-positive and had a normal karyotype, although the biopsied tissue demonstrated histologic evidence of benign melanocytic proliferation; one was mitogen-negative initially, but had an extra chromosome 8 in 2 of 50 cells; 3 were mitogen-positive and chromosomally abnormal. Each of the cultures in this latter group exhibited reciprocal translocation (rcpt) as the only identifiable abnormality [rcpt(6;15), rcpt(10;15), rcpt(15;20)], or a constitutional rcpt(4;5). Thus, there was direct correlation between growth factor production and chromosome abnormality in 6 of 8 benign nevus cultures. In the newly established melanoma cultures there was also concordance between growth factor and chromosomal status; conditioned media from 4 of 6 were mitogen-positive by at least one assay, and all 4 of the mitogen-positive cultures had chromosomally abnormal cell populations. Of the 2 melanoma cultures negative for growth factors, one was also negative for chromosome abnormality; the other had chromosomal change consisting of increased polyploidy. Both melanoma cell lines had abnormal karyotypes and were mitogen-positive. Though numerous chromosome changes were noted in the karyotypically abnormal melanoma cells, 6 of the 8 cultures exhibited abnormalities in chromosomes 1, 6, and/or 7. These data suggest that steps in the progression from benign nevi toward dysplastic nevi or malignant melanoma include: proliferation resulting from altered production of endogenous mitogenic growth factors; and development of specific chromosomal abnormalities.