Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is common in the dialysis population and patients with chronic renal failure (CRF) not requiring dialysis. HCV is the most important cause of chronic liver disease in dialysis patients; however, its role has been underestimated by the lower aminotransferase activity in the dialysis population. Aminotransferase activity in patients with CRF not requiring dialysis has not been adequately addressed to date. The aim of this study is to investigate whether serum aminotransferase levels in predialysis patients with CRF are less than those obtained in healthy individuals and dialysis patients. We also analyzed the potential association between serum aminotransferase activity and demographic, clinical, and biochemical parameters. Aspartate (AST) and alanine aminotransferase (ALT) activity was greater in antibody to hepatitis C (anti-HCV)-positive than anti-HCV-negative patients with CRF not requiring dialysis (AST, 32.3 +/- 19 versus 18.1 +/- 8 IU/L [P = 0.0001]; ALT, 32.9 +/- 28 versus 17.7 +/- 11 IU/L [P = 0.00001], respectively). Predialysis patients with CRF had lower AST and ALT activity in comparison to healthy individuals (AST, 19.7 +/- 11.2 versus 20.4 +/- 6.8 IU/L [P = 0.00001]; ALT, 19.5 +/- 15.1 versus 21.7 +/- 11.3 IU/L [P = 0.00001], respectively). The difference was much greater after correction for viral markers: AST and ALT levels in hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg)-negative anti-HCV-negative predialysis patients with CRF were less than those in the healthy population (AST, 17.9 +/- 8 versus 20.4 +/- 6.8 IU/L [P = 0.00001]; ALT, 17.5 +/- 10 versus 21.7 +/- 11.3 IU/L [P = 0.00001], respectively). Comparison of AST and ALT activity between age-matched healthy and predialysis seronegative CRF groups showed lower AST and ALT values in the study population. HBsAg-negative anti-HCV-negative dialysis patients had lower AST and ALT activity than seronegative predialysis patients with CRF (AST, 16.6 +/- 11.6 versus 17.9 +/- 8 IU/L [P = 0.01]; ALT, 16.3 +/- 9.4 versus 17.5 +/- 10 [P = 0.041], respectively). Multivariate analysis in the predialysis CRF population showed an independent association between AST (P = 0.00001) and ALT (P = 0.00001) activity and anti-HCV positivity, and age was negatively linked to AST (P = 0.011) and ALT levels (P = 0.001). AST level was negatively related to serum creatinine level (P = 0.0001). In conclusion, HCV infection causes significant liver injury in predialysis patients with CRF. These patients have decreased aminotransferase activity compared with the general population. Dialysis patients show lower aminotransferase activity than predialysis patients with CRF. Because serum aminotransferase levels are commonly used to screen for liver disease in the dialysis and predialysis CRF population, recognition of liver damage may be hampered by the reduction in aminotransferase values in these patients. Studies aimed to clarify the pathogenesis of this phenomenon are in progress.