We examined the expression of smooth muscle cytoskeleton in spindle-shaped cells in the capsule of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and the septa of liver cirrhosis (LC). Serial sections of livers resected from 11 patients were stained with monoclonal antibodies against vimentin, desmin, smooth muscle actin (1A4, HHF35, CGA7) and smooth muscle myosin heavy chain isoforms (SM1, SM2). Capsular spindle-shaped cells exhibited a cytoskeletal feature indicative of intermediately differentiated smooth muscle cells. Computer-assisted morphometry revealed that the proportions of 1A4-, HHF35-, CGA7- and SM1- positive areas to vimentin-positive area were 88.0+/-11.0%, 50.8+/-17.4%, 25.3+/-16.4% and 19.4+/-12.4% (n=11) in main tumours and 86.6+/-9.4%, 50.9+/-18.7%, 21.1+/-12.3% and 17.6+/-9.7% (n=12) in daughter tumours, indicating that spindle-shaped cells are heterogeneous in cytoskeletal expression. Septal spindle-shaped cells in LC lacked the cytoskeletal proteins specific to differentiated smooth muscle cells (CGA7, SM1, SM2 and desmin). Electron microscopically, capsular spindle-shaped cells contained more microfilaments and less rough endoplasmic reticulum than do septal cells. Intermediately differentiated smooth muscle cells are induced in the capsule of HCC but not in the septa of LC, suggesting a role for stromal interaction by tumour cells in the induction of smooth muscle cells.