Hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) can promote proliferation of many types of tumor cells including gastric cancer cells. To study the role of HGF in the progression of gastric carcinoma, HGF levels were measured by an enzyme immunoassay (EIA) system in sera of gastric cancer patients and followed up the levels after the operation. The mean serum HGF level in 212 healthy control subjects, 140 patients with primary gastric cancer, and 13 patients with recurrent gastric cancer were 0.199 +/- 0.073, 0.325 +/- 0.209, and 0.578 +/- 0.258 ng/ml, respectively. The increase of the levels was significantly correlated with the progression of tumor stage. The levels decreased to normal levels 1 month after curative resection of the tumors. However, the levels did not decrease significantly in nonresected cases. During the follow-up of the patients for several months, the level was significantly increased in recurrent gastric cancer patients, whereas there was no increase in nonrecurrent patients. In conclusion, the serum HGF levels significantly correlated with the aggressiveness of the tumors, suggesting an important role of HGF in the progression of gastric carcinoma.