We hypothesize that a major factor regulating hepatic metastasis is the ability of CEA (carcinoembryonic antigen) producing colorectal carcinomas to activate Kupffer cells. CEA and NCA (nonspecific cross-reacting antigen) bind to an 80 kDa Kupffer cell receptor by the peptide sequence PELPK and stimulate cytokine production. Cytokines induce sinusoidal endothelial cells to express intercellular adhesion molecules and increase adhesion of the tumor cells and retention in the liver. In this study human Kupffer cells were activated in vitro with CEA, NCA, and the peptide PELPK. This resulted in release of IL-1beta, TNF-alpha and IL-6. CEA non-producing MIP-101 colon carcinoma cells labeled with 51Cr were incubated on monolayers of ECV-304 human umbilical vein endothelial cells treated with these Kupffer cell derived cytokines or with comparable recombinant human (rH) cytokines. Specific antibodies to the adhesion molecules ICAM-1, VCAM-1, E-selectin and beta2integrin were used to block their functions. A significant enhancement in the adhesion of colorectal carcinoma cells occurred when endothelial cells were stimulated with a very low concentration of Kupffer-cell derived cytokines. Activated endothelium demonstrated significant up-regulation primarily of ICAM-1. The adhesion was blocked by an antibody to ICAM-1. A combination of Kupffer-cell derived cytokines was more effective than IL-1beta or TNF-alpha alone. IL-6 alone did not influence adhesion under our conditions. Our results suggest a mechanism for CEA in the modulation of colorectal carcinoma adhesion to the hepatic endothelium and its enhancement of metastatic potential.