The purpose of this study was to assess the efficiency of fluorine-18 fluoro-2-deoxyglucose (FDG) positron emission tomography (PET) in the characterisation and primary staging of suspicious renal masses, in comparison with computed tomography, the current standard imaging modality. Fifty-three FDG PET studies were performed within the framework of a prospective study: 35 for both characterisation and staging of a suspicious mass, and 18 for staging early after surgical removal of a renal cancer. In the characterisation of renal masses, a high rate of false negative results was observed, leading to a sensitivity, specificity and accuracy of 47%, 80% and 51% respectively, versus 97%, 0/5 and 83% respectively for CT. FDG PET detected all the sites of distant metastasis revealed by CT, as well as eight additional metastatic sites, leading to an accuracy of 94% versus 89% for CT. However, 36/53 patients (68%) did not have any distant metastasis on either CT or on PET. All but one of these patients had a low Fuhrman histological grade and a limited local stage (< or =pT2). We conclude that FDG PET does not offer any advantage over CT for the characterisation of renal masses but that it appears to be an efficient tool for the detection of distant metastasis in renal cancer. However, our data suggest that a selection process could be implemented to determine which patients should undergo PET. FDG PET could be performed in the event of a solitary metastasis or doubtful images on CT. Selection could also be based on adverse histological findings from nephrectomy specimens in order to perform staging early after nephrectomy.