Overexpression and/or mutations of oncogenes, tumour suppressor genes and tumour rejection genes have been observed in several human malignancies. Their analyses might be of diagnostic importance. Therefore, malignant hepatocytes derived from hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) tissue as well as non-malignant hepatocytes derived from focal nodular hyperplasia (FNH) were studied. Samples containing normal human hepatocytes (HC) served as controls. Cellular material was obtained by fine-needle aspiration biopsy guided by ultrasound. Cells were analysed for expression and mutation of the oncogene MDM2, the genes GAGE-1, -2 coding for tumour-associated antigens and the candidate tumour suppressor gene FHIT. Different patterns of non-mutant FHIT transcripts including precise deletion of exons were found in 7/10 HCC, 2/10 FNH and 2/10 HC. However, expression of non-mutant GAGE-1, -2 RNA was demonstrated exclusively in 6/10 HCC samples. Further genetic features specific of HCC were point mutations in a zinc-finger motif of MDM2 (3/10 HCC samples). Neither GAGE-1, -2 expression nor MDM2 mutations were observed in the FNH samples, or in normal hepatocytes. Our findings suggest that occurrence of variable FHIT transcripts is not restricted to hepatic malignant tumours. In contrast, MDM2 mutations and GAGE-1, -2 expression were associated with HCC specimens. Therefore, the RT-PCR assays for GAGE-1, -2 and MDM2 might be useful adjuncts in cytodiagnosis of liver neoplasms.