Insulin-like growth factors I (IGF-I) and II (IGF-II) are anabolic for osteoblastic cells. Although expression of IGF-I and IGF-II mRNA has been demonstrated in rodent osteoblastic cells, little is known about IGF gene expression in human osteoblastic cell models. In this study we characterized IGF-I and -II mRNA expression in (1) normal human osteoblast-like (hOB) cells, (2) a simian virus 40 immortalized hOB (HOBIT) cell line, and (3) human osteosarcoma cell lines SaOS-2, TE-85, MG-63, and U-2. Since cross-hybridization of IGF cDNA probes with ribosomal RNA obscures detection of some of the multiple IGF transcripts in human cells, we replaced Northern analysis with the more specific ribonuclease protection assay (RPA). We also used the reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) to assess whether mRNAs were present at trace levels. IGF-I mRNA expression was consistently observed in normal hOB cells only and by both RT-PCR and RPA. Among IGF-I transcript variants, Ea IGF-I mRNA was more abundant than the Eb mRNA in normal hOB cells. Trace levels of IGF-I mRNA were variably detected in SaOS-2 and U-2 osteosarcoma cells when RT-PCR was performed, but we found no IGF-I mRNA in HOBIT, TE-85, or MG-63 cells. IGF-II mRNA was expressed in normal hOB, HOBIT, TE-85, and U-2 cells as assessed by either method. Trace levels of IGF-II mRNA were observed only in one of three SaOS-2 cell preparations and only by RT-PCR. IGF-II mRNA was absent in MG-63 cells. Thus, our data indicate that (1) normal hOB cells express both IGF-I and IGF-II mRNA and (2) transformation of human osteoblastic cells may alter IGF gene expression. These results provide a basis for selecting appropriate cell models for the study of IGFs in human bone.