Serum bioactive and immunoreactive FSH levels were measured in five prostatic cancer patients during treatment for 6 months with the GnRH agonist analog buserelin (Hoechst; 600 micrograms, intranasally, 3 times per day) and for up to 12 weeks after subsequent orchidectomy. FSH bioactivity was measured using a sensitive specific in vitro granulosa cells aromatase bioassay. Before buserelin treatment, mean serum FSH bioactivity and immunoreactivity were 19.7 +/- 4.1 (+/- SE) IU/L (n = 5) and 13.7 +/- 3.8 IU/L, respectively, with a bioactivity to immunoactivity (B/I) ratio of 1.7 +/- 0.2. After the initiation of treatment with the GnRH agonist, FSH bio- and immunoactivities both transiently increased for 1-3 days. The increase in bioactivity was greater and prolonged, and the B/I ratio increased nearly 7-fold in 2 weeks. Serum FSH immunoreactivity declined to below the pretreatment level in 5 days and remained low for the rest of the treatment period. In contrast, serum FSH bioactivity did not decrease significantly below the pretreatment level during the 6-month treatment period, although the B/I ratio returned slowly toward the pretreatment value. After orchidectomy, both FSH activities increased dramatically, and the B/I ratio rose transiently from 1.5 to 7 in 2 weeks. Interestingly, serum FSH bioactivity and immunoreactivity decreased significantly (P less than 0.05) 1 day after orchidectomy in the buserelin-treated patients. In contrast, serum FSH immunoreactivity increased during the same period (P less than 0.05) in patients treated only by orchidectomy (FSH bioactivity was not measured). In conclusion, serum FSH bioactivity increases acutely more than FSH immunoreactivity after initiation of GnRH agonist treatment or orchidectomy. In the former case, serum FSH bioactivity subsequently returned to the pretreatment range. A clear decline during long term agonist treatment occurred only in serum FSH immunoreactivity, in contrast to the concomitant decline in serum LH bio- and immunoreactivities reported previously. The persistence of bioactive FSH may explain the inconsistent effects of GnRH agonist treatment on the suppression of spermatogenesis. The acute decrease in serum FSH after orchidectomy in the buserelin-treated men suggests that the testes may produce a factor that stimulates pituitary FSH secretion.