Despite elevated parathyroid hormone (PTH) levels, low normal or diminished serum 1,25(OH)2D3 concentrations are found in patients with incipient renal failure. To further assess (indirectly) the reserve capacity of renal production of 1,25(OH)2D3 we studied 9 patients with incipient or moderate renal failure (inulin clearance 31-68ml/min/1.73 m2) and 9 controls, using a novel stimulation test. We measured 1,25 (OH)2D3 levels, free 1,25(OH)2D3 index, cAMP excretion, calciuria and phosphaturia before and after infusion of 2 x 400 U of human (h) PTH (1-38). Baseline 1,25(OH)2D3 levels were not significantly different in patients (42.5 pg/ml, 21.6-51.1) compared with controls (45.0 pg/ml, 37.4-67.3). After infusion of hPTH(1-38), however, median increase in 1,25(OH)2D3 was only +25% versus +86% in controls, despite a greater proportional increase in cAMP/GF ratio. The data suggest subnormal stimulation of renal 1,25(OH)2D3 production in response to exogenous PTH in most patients with incipient renal failure. This may reflect partial exhaustion of biosynthetic reserve capacity.