Tumor cells in abdominal lavage specimens from patients with gastric carcinoma strongly predict subsequent peritoneal metastasis and poor prognosis. Reverse transcription (RT)-polymerase chain reaction (PCR) detection of wild-type E-cadherin has been claimed to be superior to conventional cytology for the detection of patients who subsequently develop peritoneal metastases. The present study tested this hypothesis and determined whether or not the detection of mutated, tumor-specific E-cadherin messenger RNA in abdominal lavage specimens serve as a useful diagnostic tool. Preoperative lavage specimens from 52 patients with diffuse-type gastric carcinoma and from 5 patients with benign disease were analyzed by conventional cytology and by RT-PCR for amplification of E-cadherin. Tumor cells were detected by cytology in 8 (15.3%) of the 52 patients with gastric cancer. The E-cadherin was detected in all 57 samples by RT-PCR. Two of these had abnormal E-cadherin amplification products confirmed to be mutations by direct sequencing, which were identical in the primary tumors. These findings suggest that the detection of wild-type E-cadherin is not sufficiently tumor specific. Also, for diffuse gastric carcinomas with confirmed E-cadherin mutations, detection of mutant E-cadherin by RT-PCR is a potentially valuable method for tumor cell detection in lavage specimens.