The alteration of normal dermal fibroblast function that leads to the development of hypertrophic scar after thermal injury is unknown. To determine functional differences that might explain this process, fibroblasts were cultured from biopsies of post-thermal injury mature hypertrophic scars and patient-matched normal skin. The mitogenic responses of scar cells to fetal bovine serum, epidermal growth factor (EGF), platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF), and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha) were determined and compared to normal skin cells. Collagen synthetic rate was also compared in the presence and absence of transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF beta 1). Whereas both scar and normal cells responded with increased thymidine uptake to serum and cytokines, the stimulation to EGF and serum was significantly lower in scar cells. In contrast, synthesis of collagen, but not of non-collagenous proteins, was increased in scar relative to normal cells, both basally and when stimulated with low doses of TGF beta 1. Additionally, the fraction of protein synthesized as collagen was significantly higher in scar fibroblasts. These results suggest that fibroblasts from hypertrophic scars demonstrate stable phenotypic differences in cytokine responsiveness in comparison to cells from unaffected skin. The increased rate of collagen synthesis and decreased responsiveness to mitogens are consistent with the increased extracellular matrix content and decreased cellularity of hypertrophic scars.