To characterize mitogens that might contribute to Schwann cell proliferation during development or in tumors, we tested the ability of hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) to stimulate Schwann cell division in vitro. HGF is a potent mitogen for purified rat Schwann cells; DNA synthesis in rat Schwann cells was stimulated 20–40-fold by 3–10 ng/ml HGF. Rat Schwann cells express c-met mRNA, encoding the HGF receptor, but not HGF mRNA, implying that HGF might act as a paracrine Schwann cell growth factor. HGF-stimulated Schwann cell proliferation differs from that of previously described Schwann cell mitogens in that its activity is abolished by forskolin and is not inhibited or potentiated by addition of transforming growth factor beta (TGF beta) or fibroblast growth factor (FGF). HGF is probably not a component of the axonal signal thought to cause Schwann cell division during development, as anti-HGF neutralizing antibodies failed to block neuron-stimulated Schwann cell proliferation. In contrast, mitogenic activity present in normal human adult nerves and in neurofibromas from patients with type 1 neurofibromatosis analyzed in the absence of forskolin is largely inhibitable by anti-HGF. Thus, HGF is a novel mitogen for Schwann cells in vitro and it is present in Schwann cell tumors, suggesting a potential role for HGF after wounding of peripheral nerves or in tumor growth.