A significant increase in endometrial cancer incidence in tamoxifen- treated breast cancer patients has been reported in many recent studies. The major growth stimulators of endometrial tumors are estrogens, but paradoxically, tamoxifen, a known antiestrogen, also stimulates their growth. The mode of action of estrogen can be partially explained by the modulation of insulin-like growth factor (IGF) autocrine or paracrine action. The purpose of the present study was to examine the involvement of the IGF system in the tamoxifen-stimulated growth of Ishikawa endometrial cancer cells by quantitating the IGF-I receptors and their phosphorylation, as well as membrane-associated and secreted IGF-binding proteins (IGFBPs). Tamoxifen did not affect the number or affinity of IGF-I receptors. On the other hand, tamoxifen, similar to estradiol, increased IGF-I-stimulated tyrosine phosphorylation of cellular substrates. In contrast, in MCF-7 mammary cancer cells, tamoxifen reduced IGF-induced tyrosine phosphorylation in the presence of estradiol. The pure antiestrogen LY156758 did not affect Ishikawa basal cell growth but inhibited estradiol- and tamoxifen-induced growth. Growth inhibition by LY156758 of tamoxifen and estradiol-stimulated cells was accompanied by a corresponding inhibition of IGF-stimulated tyrosine phosphorylation. Tamoxifen caused a 3-fold decrease in membrane-associated IGFBPs. Moreover, a reduction in soluble IGFBPs was also observed, making the IGF peptides more available to the receptors. A parallel decrease in IGFBP-3 mRNA was also detected. These experiments suggest that tamoxifen, like estradiol, directly sensitizes endometrial cancer cells to the effects of IGFs that act through the type I receptor. Furthermore, the decrease in IGFBPs and the increase in tyrosine phosphorylation in the presence of tamoxifen provides a molecular mechanism that accounts for the uterotropic effects that are seen with tamoxifen therapy.