Interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta), tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) and interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) contribute to the initial stages of the autoimmune destruction of pancreatic beta cells. IL-1beta is released by activated macrophages resident within islets, and its cytotoxic actions include a stimulation of nitric oxide (NO) production and the initiation of apoptosis. Insulin-like growth factors (IGFs)-I and -II prevent apoptosis in non-islet tissues. This study investigated whether IGFs are cytoprotective for isolated islets of Langerhans from non-obese diabetic mice (NOD) mice exposed to cytokines. Pancreatic islets isolated from 5-6-week-old, pre-diabetic female NOD mice were cultured for 48 h before exposure to IL-1beta (1 ng/ml), TNF-alpha (5 ng/ml), IFN-gamma (5 ng/ml) or IGF-I or -II (100 ng/ml) for a further 48 h. The incidence of islet cell apoptosis was increased in the presence of each cytokine, but this was significantly reversed in the presence of IGF-I or -II (IL-1beta control 3.5+/-1.6%, IL-1beta 1 ng/ml 27.1+/-5.8%, IL-1beta+IGF-I 100 ng/ml 4.4+/-2.3%, P<0.05). The majority of apoptotic cells demonstrated immunoreactive glucose transporter 2 (GLUT-2), suggesting that they were beta cells. Islet cell viability was also assessed by trypan blue exclusion. Results suggested that apoptosis was the predominant cause of cell death following exposure to each of the cytokines. Co-incubation with either IGF-I or -II was protective against the cytotoxic effects of IL-1beta and TNF-alpha, but less so against the effect of IFN-gamma. Exposure to cytokines also reduced insulin release, and this was not reversed by incubation with IGFs. Immunohistochemistry showed that IGF-I was present in vivo in islets from pre-diabetic NOD mice which did not demonstrate insulitis, but not in islets with extensive immune infiltration. Similar results were seen for IGF-binding proteins (IGFBPs). These results suggest that IGFs protect pre-diabetic NOD mouse islets from the cytotoxic actions of IL-1beta, TNF-alpha and IFN-gamma by mechanisms which include a reduction in apoptosis.