The sentinel node (SN) is the first lymph node in the lymphatic basin to be affected by metastasis from the primary tumour and is used to predict the status of the remaining nodes in the basin. We succeeded in detecting SNs of clinically early gastric cancers by intraoperative injection of a blue dye around the tumour. In the study presented here, multiple-marker reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) was used to detect micrometastases in SNs and results were compared with those obtained with conventional histology. Expressions of cytokeratin-18 (CK-18), carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), human telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTRT) and MUC-1 in SNs were determined by RT-PCR and Southern blot assay. Of the 213 SNs obtained from 35 cases of gastric cancer, eight nodes (3.8%) from five patients contained metastases that could be identified by conventional histology. However, CK-18 mRNA was expressed in 15 (7.0%), CEA in 12 (5.6%), hTRT in 10 (4.7%), and MUC-1 in 12 (5.6%) nodes, with at least one mRNA marker expressed in 25 nodes (11.7%) obtained from six patients. In the five patients with nodal metastases identified by conventional histology, two had metastases in both SNs and non-SNs. And, in the 30 patients without nodal metastases identified by conventional histology, one patient with micrometastases in the SNs identified by RT - PCR and Southern blot assay also had metastases in non-SNs as identified by serial sectioning and immunostaining of CK-18. All additional metastases were detected in non-SNs located in the same lymphatic basin as the previously detected SNs. This suggests that lymph node dissection of early-stage gastric cancer in the lymphatic basin may be mandatory even for patients without histologically detectable metastases in SNs.