An improved protocol for reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), amplifying tyrosinase and MelanA/MART-1 mRNA from peripheral blood, was used to test 340 blood samples from 225 patients with malignant melanoma for the presence of circulating tumour cells. Positive results for tyrosinase or MelanA were obtained in 19% of patients in stage I (n = 74), 31% in stage II (n = 45), 29% in stage III (n = 48) and 52% in stage IV (n = 58). Amplification of MelanA in addition to tyrosinase resulted in a 30% enhanced sensitivity of melanoma cell detection compared with amplification of tyrosinase alone. The sensitivity was further enhanced by analysis of at least two blood samples per patient and performing at least two PCR analyses per sample. During a median follow-up of 4 months, patients with a positive PCR showed a 2. 4-fold increased risk for relapse compared with PCR-negative patients. These data indicate that the detection of circulating melanoma cells in peripheral blood using our optimized protocol for RT-PCR correlated with the clinical stage of disease and is therefore likely to be a prognostic marker for recurrence. MelanA is a sensitive additional marker to tyrosinase in detecting micrometastases using RT-PCR.