Insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-I, a mitogenic and anti-apoptotic peptide, has been implicated in the development of several cancers. We hypothesized that high circulating IGF-I concentrations may be associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer. A case–control study was nested within 3 prospective cohorts in New York (USA), Umeå (Sweden) and Milan (Italy). One hundred thirty-two women with primary invasive epithelial ovarian cancer diagnosed at least 1 year after blood donation were case subjects. For each case, 2 control subjects were selected, matching the case subject on cohort, menopausal status, age and date of recruitment (n = 263). Only women who did not use exogenous hormones at blood donation were included in the study. There was no association between IGF-I concentrations and ovarian cancer risk in the study group as a whole. In analyses restricted to subjects who had developed ovarian cancer at a young age (<55), circulating IGF-I was directly and strongly associated with ovarian cancer risk (OR = 4.97; 95% CI = 1.22–20.2 for the top vs. the bottom IGF-I tertile after adjustment for parity, BMI categories and smoking). There was no significant association of IGF binding protein-3 with ovarian cancer risk. We found a strong direct relationship between circulating IGF-I levels and risk of developing ovarian cancer before age 55. Additional, larger studies of this association are needed to provide more precise estimates of effect. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.