The aim of our study was to investigate the metastatic pathways of melanoma cells in sentinel and other regional lymph nodes. The term "sentinel lymph node" means that the first lymph node of the draining site of a primary tumor is never bypassed in malignant melanoma. In this case lymph node dissection would be necessary only when melanoma cells are detected in the sentinel node. Tyrosinase reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction was applied to search for metastatic melanoma in the sentinel lymph node and in further lymph nodes of a complete lymph node basin in patients who underwent lymph node dissection. In 24 patients with malignant melanoma the draining site of the tumor was marked by lymphoscintigraphy and by intraoperative injection of patent blue V in the area around the primary tumor. The lymph nodes of the affected basin were excised and prepared for histopathologic, immunohistochemical, and molecular biologic examinations. Regarding the sentinel lymph node, 10 of 24 patients showed morphologic evidence for metastases, three additional patients showed only tyrosinase transcripts. In 11 of these 13 cases we found one or more nonsentinel lymph nodes with morphologically detectable melanoma cells and/or tyrosinase mRNA. Interestingly, in seven of 24 patients a positive tyrosinase reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction was received in nonsentinel lymph nodes, whereas the sentinel lymph node was negative, not only for all histologic examinations but also by tyrosinase reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction. In five of seven patients of the latter group, gp100 reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction was carried out, showing also gp100 mRNA in nonsentinel lymph nodes only. Our data indicate that the concept of the sentinel lymph node may miss micrometastases. Whether such micrometastases cause a recurrence or a metastasis of malignant melanoma, or can be destroyed by the immune system, remains to be clarified.