The function of cell surface-associated insulin-like growth factor- binding proteins (IGFBPs) is controversial. Both inhibition and facilitation of IGF action as well as IGF-independent effects have been reported. We examined the influence of endogenous cell surface-associated IGFBPs on IGF-I receptor (IGF-IR) function in Ishikawa endometrial cancer cells by comparing the effects of IGF-I and its truncated analog des-(1-3)-IGF-I on several components of the IGF-IR signal transduction pathway in the absence of significant amounts of soluble IGFBPs. IGF-I and des-(1-3)-IGF-I are known to have similar affinities for IGF-IR, although the affinity of des-(1-3)-IGF-I for IGFBPs is greatly reduced. Here we show that the two ligands were equipotent not only in IGF-IR binding but also in receptor activation in NIH 3T3 cells overexpressing IGF-IR and possessing a relatively small number of cell surface-associated IGFBPs. In contrast, des-(1-3)-IGF-I manifested a remarkably higher potency as compared with IGF-I in inducing short and middle term cellular responses in IGF-IR-transfected Ishikawa endometrial cancer cells possessing a high number of both the receptor and the cell membrane- bound IGFBP-3. Thus, this difference in the effects of IGF-I and des-(1-3)- IGF-I can be attributed to the attenuation of IGF-I-mediated IGF-IR signaling by membrane-bound IGFBP-3.