We have developed sensitive assays for cytokeratin (K) 8, 16, 19, stromelysin 3 (ST3), MUC1 and maspin mRNAs using reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and used these to assess lymph node status in patients undergoing surgery for breast cancer. In addition the RT-PCR assays were tested against lymph nodes from non-cancer patients to determine their specificity. Despite high sensitivity RT-PCR assays for K8, K16, K19, ST3 and maspin were not found to be useful as markers of submicroscopic disease as transcripts of these genes were detected in the great majority of control lymph nodes tested. Expression of MUC1 was also not found to be useful as it was both insensitive and non-specific. The importance of assessing potential markers against an adequately sized control population is demonstrated, as failure to do so can lead to erroneous conclusions.