The mitogenic effect of TGF-alpha, acidic-FGF, basic-FGF and lithium on normal human breast epithelial cells was studied in a collagen gel culture system using a serum-free 1:1 mixture of Ham's F12 and DME medium containing insulin, cholera toxin and bovine serum albumin. TGF-alpha elicited a strong mitogenic response in a dose dependent manner. Addition of cortisol to TGF-alpha stimulated growth over and above that achieved with TGF-alpha alone. A consistent observation has been the effect of a combination of TGF-alpha and cortisol on growth stimulation of normal human breast epithelial cells resulting in 3-12 fold growth after 11-13 days in culture. Acidic-FGF, basic-FGF and lithium were not growth promoting.