Nephrogenic systemic fibrosis (NSF) is a fibrotic disease generating intense interest due to its recent discovery, and unknown cause. It appears confined to patients with renal disease and presents as grossly thickened, indurated, tight skin that is woody to palpation. Histologically, the dermis contains thickened collagen bundles, numerous plump fibroblast-like cells, and elevated hyaluronan expression. Recent data suggest a link between the use of gadolinium chelate as an MRI contrast agent and the onset of the disease. Fibroblasts from the lesions of six NSF patients, all of whom were exposed to gadodiamide, were compared with control fibroblasts for hyaluronan and collagen synthesis. Serum from NSF patients was assessed for fibroblast hyaluronan-stimulating activity, collagen synthesis, and gadodiamide for its effect on fibroblast proliferation and matrix synthesis. NSF fibroblasts synthesized excess levels of hyaluronan and collagen compared with control fibroblasts, with up to 2.8-fold and 3.3-fold increases, respectively. NSF patient serum stimulated control fibroblast hyaluronan synthesis by up to 7-fold, and collagen synthesis by up to 2.4-fold. 1 mM gadodiamide added to culture medium stimulated fibroblast growth in a dose-dependent manner, decreasing their doubling time from 28 h to 22 h, and increasing the maximum cell density. Even a short exposure to gadodiamide stimulated cell growth, suggesting that the cells were activated by the gadodiamide. The growth of fibroblasts within contracted collagen lattices was also significantly stimulated by gadodiamide, while fibroblasts exposed to gadodiamide synthesized increased levels of hyaluronan. Control fibroblasts exposed to gadodiamide, and NSF fibroblasts exhibited an extensive pericellular coat of hyaluronan, and expressed α-smooth muscle actin. Gadolinium chloride did not affect fibroblast growth. This report demonstrates that NSF fibroblasts synthesize excess levels of hyaluronan and collagen, and that gadodiamide stimulates control fibroblast growth, matrix synthesis, and differentiation into myofibroblasts, suggesting a possible role for gadodiamide in the pathophysiology of NSF. Copyright © 2008 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.