The chemokine monocyte chemoattractant protein (MCP)-1 is an important mediator of monocyte infiltration in various solid tumours of epithelial origin. The aim of the present study was to evaluate the role of MCP-1 in the natural history of ovarian cancer and to determine its value as differentiation marker and prognostic marker regarding disease free and overall survival. This retrospective study comprises 86 patients with ovarian cancer, 48 with primary ovarian cancer and 38 with recurrent ovarian cancer, 67 patients with benign ovarian cysts and 42 healthy women. Median serum levels in patients with primary ovarian cancer, recurrent ovarian cancer, benign ovarian cysts and in healthy women were 535.6 (range 129.6-1200) pg ml(-1), 427.3 (range 193.4-1101) pg ml(-1), 371.2 (range 222-986.8) pg ml(-1) and 318.7 (range 241.3-681.4) pg ml(-1) respectively (Mann-Whitney U-test, P < 0.001). Univariate logistic regression models revealed a significant influence of MCP-1 serum levels on the odds of presenting with primary ovarian cancer versus benign cysts and versus healthy women respectively (univariate logistic regression, P < 0.001 and P < 0.001 respectively). In a multivariate logistic regression model considering MCP-1 and CA 125 serum levels simultaneously, both MCP-1 and CA 125 revealed statistical significance on the odds of presenting with primary ovarian cancer versus benign cysts (multivariate logistic regression, P = 0.05 and P < 0.001 respectively). In ovarian cancer patients, MCP-1 serum levels showed a statistically significant correlation with histological grade (Mann-Whitney U-test, P = 0.02) and age at the time of diagnosis (Mann-Whitney U-test, P = 0.03). Elevated MCP-1 serum levels prior to therapy were not associated with disease-free and overall survival (log-rank test, P = 0.2 and P = 0.7 respectively). In summary these data indicate that MCP-1 might play a functional role in the natural history of ovarian cancer and might serve as differentiation marker between benign ovarian cysts and ovarian cancer, providing additional information to the established tumour marker CA 125.