To assess the effect of recombinant human growth hormone (rhGH) on muscle protein metabolism in uremic patients with malnutrition, forearm [3H]phenylalanine kinetics were evaluated in six chronically wasted (body weight 79% of ideal weight) hemodialysis (HD) patients in a self-controlled, crossover study. Forearm protein dynamics were evaluated before, after a 6-wk course of rhGH (5 mg thrice weekly) and after a 6-wk washout period. After rhGH: (a) forearm phenylalanine net balance–the difference between phenylalanine incorporation into and phenylalanine release from muscle proteins–decreased by 46% (-8+/-2 vs. -15+/-2 nmol/min x 100 ml at the baseline and -11+/-2 after washout, P < 0.02), (b) phenylalanine rate of disposal, an index of protein synthesis, increased by 25% (25+/-5 vs. 20+/-5 at the baseline and 20+/-4 after washout, P < 0.03), (c) phenylalanine rate of appearance, an index of protein degradation, was unchanged (33+/-5 vs. 35+/-5 at the baseline and 31+/-4 after washout), (d) forearm potassium release declined (0.24+/-0.13 vs. 0.60+/-0.15 microeq/min at the baseline, and 0.42+/-0.20 microeq/min after washout P < 0.03), (e) changes in the insulin-like growth factor binding protein (IGFBP)-1 levels and insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I)/IGFBP-3 ratios accounted for 15.1% and 47.1% of the percent variations in forearm net phenylalanine balance, respectively. Together, these two factors accounted for 62.2% of variations in forearm net phenylalanine balance during and after rhGH administration. These data indicate: (a) that rhGH administration in malnourished hemodialysis patients is followed by an increase in muscle protein synthesis and by a decrease in the negative muscle protein balance observed in the postabsorptive state, and (b) that the reduction in net protein catabolism obtained with rhGH can be accounted for by the associated changes in circulating free, but not total, IGF-I levels.