Two human pancreatic adenocarcinoma cell lines (PANC 1 and MIA PACA 2) were examined for expression of growth factors that could potentially play a role either in growth regulation of the tumor cells, or in cells that comprise the stromal elements of tumors. Both cell lines expressed transforming growth factor-alpha (TGF alpha), basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), c-sis (PDGF B chain), TGF beta 1, and TGF beta 3 mRNA by Northern blot analysis. Only the PANC 1 cells, however, expressed the TGF beta 2 transcript. TGF beta-like competing activity was found in medium conditioned by either cell line, but TGF alpha-like [epidermal growth factor (EGF)-competing] activity was not detected in the medium from either cell line by radioreceptor assay. TGF alpha and EGF caused concentration-dependent stimulation of soft agar colony growth of the MIA PACA 2 cells, while only TGF alpha caused a significant but less dramatic stimulation of soft agar growth of the PANC 1 cells. Insulin stimulated the anchorage-independent growth of MIA PACA 2 but not PANC 1 cells. Likewise, bFGF also caused a concentration-dependent stimulation of MIA PACA 2 but not PANC 1 growth in soft agar, and PDGF had no effect on the growth of either cell line. TGF beta had no inhibitory or stimulatory effect on soft agar colony growth of either the PANC 1 or the MIA PACA 2 cells, although both cell lines exhibited high affinity, saturable TGF beta binding sites, and TGF beta 1 was capable of autoinduction of TGF beta 1 mRNA expression in PANC 1 cells. The ability to continue to respond to positive growth regulatory factors coupled with the loss of responsiveness to negative growth factors may be important in the pathogenicity of these aggressive tumors.