BACKGROUND: Intact parathyroid hormone (I-PTH) assays react with non-(1-84)PTH, large carboxyl-terminal (C) fragments with a partially preserved amino-terminal (N) structure. They account for up to 50% of I-PTH in renal failure and may be implicated in PTH resistance. We wanted to know if they were secreted by the parathyroid glands and generated by peripheral metabolism of PTH(1-84). METHODS: Anesthetized normal and nephrectomized (NPX) rats were injected i.v. with 1.5 microg human (h) PTH(1-84). Blood was obtained from 8 rats at 2, 4, 6, 8, 12, 24, 48 and 96 min. I-PTH (Allegro I-PTH) was measured in all samples. Pools of serum were fractionated by HPLC at each time point and the fractions assayed to quantitate hPTH(1-84) and non-(1-84)PTH. Secretion studies were performed with dispersed cells from 5 parathyroid adenomas. The serum of 10 patients with primary hyperparathyroidism and cell supernatants were fractionated by HPLC and were analyzed as described. RESULTS: hPTH(1-84) disappeared from serum biexponentially. The half-life of the first exponential was similar in normal (2.08 min) and NPX (1.94 min) rats, while that of the second was longer in NPX rats (32.4 vs 20.9 min). The residual quantity of hPTH(1-84) under the curve was greater in NPX (6964+/-2392 pmol) than in normal rats (3229+/-561 pmol; P<0.001). Non-(1-84)PTH concentration was maximal at 8 min in both groups and was higher in NPX (92.8+/-13.8 pmol/l) than in normal rats (38.8+/-7.2 pmol/l; P<0.01). The area under the curve of non-(1-84)PTH was also greater in NPX (1904+/-405 pmol) than in normal rats (664+/-168 pmol; P<0.001). All parathyroid adenomas secreted non-(1-84)PTH. It represented 21.1+/-3.9% of secreted and 32.5+/-1.3% of circulating I-PTH in primary hyperparathyroidism. CONCLUSIONS: Non-(1-84)PTH, like other C-PTH fragments, originates from both the peripheral metabolism of hPTH(1-84) and from parathyroid gland secretion. Renal failure influences its concentration by increasing the amount of substrate available and by reducing non-(1-84)PTH clearance. Its higher proportion in serum relative to cell supernatants in primary hyperparathyroidism reflects the added role of peripheral metabolism and the longer half-life of fragments.