Increased levels of C-peptide, a cleavage product of proinsulin, circulate in patients with insulin resistance and early type 2 diabetes mellitus. Recent data suggest a potential causal role of C-peptide in atherogenesis by promoting monocyte and T-lymphocyte recruitment into the vessel wall. The present study examined the effect of C-peptide on vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs) proliferation and evaluated intracellular signaling pathways involved. In early arteriosclerotic lesions of diabetic subjects, C-peptide colocalized with VSMCs in the media. In vitro, stimulation of human or rat VSMCs with C-peptide induced cell proliferation in a concentration-dependent manner with a maximal 2.6+/-0.8-fold induction at 10 nmol/L human C-peptide (P<0.05 compared with unstimulated cells; n=9) and a 1.8+/-0.2-fold induction at 0.5 nmol/L rat C-peptide (P<0.05 compared with unstimulated cells; n=7), respectively, as shown by [H3]-thymidin incorporation. The proliferative effect of C-peptide on VSMCs was inhibited by Src short interference RNA transfection, PP2, an inhibitor of Src-kinase, LY294002, an inhibitor of PI-3 kinase, and the ERK1/2 inhibitor PD98059. Moreover, C-peptide induced phosphorylation of Src, as well as activation of PI-3 kinase and ERK1/2, suggesting that these signaling molecules are involved in C-peptide-induced VSMC proliferation. Finally, C-peptide induced cyclin D1 expression as well as phosphorylation of Rb in VSMCs. Our results demonstrate that C-peptide induces VSMC proliferation through activation of Src- and PI-3 kinase as well as ERK1/2. These data suggest a novel mechanism how C-peptide may contribute to plaque development and restenosis formation in patients with insulin resistance and early type 2 diabetes mellitus.