The establishment of an esophageal cancer cell line can facilitate the search for molecular mechanisms involved in esophageal carcinogenesis. A new human cancer cell line, HKESC-1, was established from a primary moderately-differentiated squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus from a 47-year-old Hong Kong Chinese man. The pathological characteristics (morphology, immunohistochemical, and electron microscopic studies), the tumorigenecity in nude mice, the cytogenetic features, the DNA ploidy, and telomerase activity of the cell line were investigated. The HKESC-1 cells have been maintained continuously in vitro for more than 16 months and passaged over 96 times. HKESC-1 cells grow as a monolayer, with a doubling time of 46 hours. The HKESC-1 cells are of a squamous epithelial origin, as shown by their immunopositivity with the anti-cytokeratin antibodies and ultrastructural demonstration of tonofilaments and desmosomes. The HKESC-1 cells possess characteristics of malignancy because they are highly tumorigenic in nude mice and have strong telomerase activity. The HKESC-1 cells had an aneuploid DNA content, as demonstrated by flow cytometric analysis. Cytogenetic analysis revealed hyperdiploidy of greater than 50 in 80% of analyzable metaphases. Chromosome gains and losses were common, and loss of the Y chromosome was a consistent numerical aberration. Additionally, many structural chromosomal abnormalities were encountered, with frequent breakpoints at 1p32, 7p22, 7q34, and 20q13. This newly established cell line serves as a useful model for studying the molecular pathogenesis, and testing new therapeutic reagents for esophageal squamous cell carcinoma.