Prolactin (PRL) and insulin-like growth factor-binding protein (IGFBP-1) are two major secretory proteins of human endometrial/decidual cells. We have characterized the mRNA of PRL and IGFBP-1 and studied the effect of progestin, medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA), anti-progestin (RU486), and relaxin (RLX) on the levels of these two mRNA transcripts in a long-term culture of human endometrial stromal cells. Northern blot analysis showed that the size of PRL mRNA was 1.15 kb and that of IGFBP-1 mRNA, 1.6 kb. Primer extension of endometrial/decidual IGFBP-1 mRNA showed two transcription initiation sites identical to those found in HepG2 human hepatoma cell line. The levels of mRNA in control samples remained low, approximately 2 pg PRL and approximately 5 pg IGFBP-1/microgram RNA at various times of culture. When stromal cells were treated with MPA for 28 days, PRL mRNA gradually increased 100-fold whereas IGFBP-1 mRNA exponentially increased approximately 1000-fold compared to control values and leveled after 25 days in culture. The timing of maximal stimulation was shortened by withdrawing MPA or by replacing MPA with RU486. After removal of MPA, levels of both mRNAs increased and each peaked after approximately 10 days, with PRL showing a 2-fold and IGFBP-1 a 20-fold increase compared to cells treated with MPA continuously. Replacing MPA by RU486 caused a rapid increase of PRL mRNA (2-3-fold) in 2-3 days followed by a gradual reduction to less than 20% of peak levels over the next 3 days. IGFBP-1 mRNA levels increased 30- and 100-fold in 1-2 days followed by a reduction to less than 20% of peak levels over the next 24 h. The reduction of mRNA levels by RU486 was reversed when cells were rechallenged with MPA. Relaxin alone caused a transient stimulation of PRL and IGFBP-1 mRNA. Maximal stimulation occurred between 10 and 20 days of culture and was 100-fold for PRL and 1000-fold for IGFBP-1 relative to control values. Cells treated with MPA and RLX in sequence had higher mRNA levels than cells treated with MPA continuously or cells subjected to MPA withdrawal. Maximal mRNA levels reached 0.4 ng PRL and approximately 8 ng IGFBP-1/microgram total RNA, approximately 0.04% and 0.8% of cellular RNA. The mRNA levels under various hormonal manipulations were similar to the previously published synthesis and secretion patterns of PRL and IGFBP-1 proteins in this system.