OBJECTIVE: Somatostatin is a powerful inhibitor of hormone secretion and cell proliferation. Treatment with somatostatin analogs in humans causes a reduction in size and secretory activity of some endocrine tumors, including somatotropic pituitary adenomas. Less studied are the effects of somatostatin agonists on non-functioning pituitary adenomas (NFPAs). In this study we characterized the effects of somatostatin and its analog lanreotide on the proliferation of NFPAs in vitro and the intracellular mechanisms involved. DESIGN: Twenty-three NFPA post-surgical specimens were analyzed for somatostatin receptor (SSTR) expression and 12 of them were cultured in vitro to study somatostatin's effects on cell proliferation, assessed by means of [(3)H]thymidine uptake, and the intracellular signaling. RESULTS: One or more SSTR subtypes were expressed in 90% of the adenomas tested. Somatostatin and lanreotide treatment inhibited phorbol myristate acetate (PMA)-induced cell proliferation. Vanadate pretreatment reversed somatostatin and lanreotide inhibition of PMA-induced DNA synthesis suggesting an involvement of tyrosine phosphatase in this effect. In the only adenoma tested, somatostatin directly induced a tyrosine phosphatase activity. Somatostatin and lanreotide caused also a significant inhibition of voltage-sensitive calcium channel activity induced by 40mmol/l K(+) depolarization in microfluorimetric analysis. CONCLUSIONS: These data show that somatostatin and lanreotide inhibit human NFPA cell proliferation in vitro, and suggest that activation of tyrosine phosphatases and inhibition of the activity of voltage-dependent calcium channels may represent intracellular signals mediating this effect.