Enhanced hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) receptor (Met) signaling has been suggested to play an important role in the development and progression of various epithelial and nonepithelial tumors. N-terminally truncated forms of the HGF receptor have been shown to be constitutively activated and tumorigenic in animal experiments. In the present study, 102 benign and malignant human musculoskeletal tumors were examined for expression of the HGF receptor by Western blotting and/or immunohistochemistry. A clear predominance of HGF receptor expression was seen in malignant as compared to benign tumors (Western blotting, P < 0.001; immunohistochemistry, P < 0.02). For the first time we show HGF receptor expression in the following four tumor types: dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans, clear cell sarcoma of tendons, malignant primitive neuroectodermal tumor, and benign fibrous histiocytoma. In three cases of sarcoma with high HGF receptor expression by Western blotting, we found indications of a short 85-kd N-terminally truncated HGF receptor that was tyrosine phosphorylated and located in the cytoplasm. Although fragments of this length were seen in 18 of 65 tumors, most were not tyrosine-phosphorylated. Northern blotting revealed only the 7.5-kb full-length HGF receptor transcript, suggesting that the 85-kd fragment is generated by an alternative initiation of translation or by proteolytic cleavage. Southern blotting detected no amplification of the Hgfr/Met gene in the 35 tumors examined, in contrast to our recent report of Hgfr/Met gene amplification in 7, 12-dimethylbenz(a)anthracene (DMBA)-induced rat sarcomas. The present data suggest that the locally aggressive and malignant properties of human mesenchymal tumors maybe related, in part, to high levels of full-length HGF receptors, and in some cases to the occurrence of N-terminally truncated HGF receptors, activated independently of HGF.