Gene amplification is one of the most important mechanisms leading to deregulated gene expression in cancer. The exact quantitative detection of this frequent genomic alteration in solid tumors is often hampered by an admixture of nonneoplastic bystander and stroma cells. To overcome this obstacle and to develop an objective quantitative method we have combined laser-assisted microdissection of tumor cells with the novel 5'-exonuclease-based real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay. The latter method enables the highly reproducible exact quantification of minute amounts of nucleic acids. As a model system amplification of c-erbB2/Her-2/neu gene and the adjacent topoisomerase IIalpha gene was determined in paraffin-embedded breast cancer specimens (n = 23) after immunohistochemical labeling and laser-based microdissection of tumor cells. The high sensitivity of real-time PCR enabled the reliable and objective detection of low-level amplifications in as few as 50 cells from archival tissue sections. Low-level amplifications were shown to escape from detection unless tumor cells were isolated by microdissection. In selected cases intratumor heterogeneity was demonstrated using areas of approximately 50 to 100 cells. This novel approach combining immunohistochemistry, laser microdissection, and quantitative kinetic PCR allows morphology-guided studies in archival tissue specimens and will enable the exact quantification of gene copy numbers in even small and precancerous lesions.