Patients on chronic hemodialysis (HD) treatment have been identified by serological testing, including second- and third-generation enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), as a high-risk group for hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. Previous studies have shown that de novo cases of HCV may occur in HD units in the absence of other parenteral exposures, which suggests the spread of HCV between patients. In addition, the reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), which directly detects HCV virus, has identified HCV infection in chronic HD patients who are seronegative. The aim of this study was to determine the incidence of HCV infection detected by RT-PCR technology in a large cohort of chronic HD patients. One hundred and twenty chronic HD patients, HCV-negative by serological assays (second-generation ELISA) and molecular techniques (branched DNA and RT-PCR), were observed for a mean period of 9.5 months. They were tested monthly for serum alanine aminotransferase levels (ALT) and by second-generation ELISA. At the end of the follow-up period, they were again evaluated by branched DNA and RT-PCR testing. HCV RNA was detected in patients' sera by RT followed by PCR using two separate primer sets from the 5'-untranslated region of the HCV genome. Southern blot was performed using a digoxigenin-labeled probe. Two patients who had HCV RNA detectable by RT-PCR at the end of the follow-up period remained branched-DNA-negative. Thus, the incidence of de novo acquisition of HCV infection in the current investigation was 2.1% per year. In 1 patient RT-PCR positivity and anti-HCV ELISA seroconversion occurred. The 2nd patient remained anti-HCV ELISA-negative, although viremic. In both patients, the onset of positivity by RT-PCR was associated with a rise of ALT levels into the 'abnormal range' in our laboratory. In these 2 patients, de novo acquisition of HCV infection was observed in the absence of obvious parenteral risk factors other than their presence in the HD environment. In conclusion, de novo acquisition of HCV infection may be undetected by ELISA and branched-DNA assays. The need to monitor chronic HD patients by serial ALT testing is emphasized. RT-PCR should be incorporated into diagnostic testing for HCV infection in chronic HD patients. RT-PCR technology can identify HCV in HD individuals with raised ALT activity.