Pathogenetic mechanisms of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) are still unclear and new tools for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes are ongoing. We have assessed whether squamous cell carcinoma antigen (SCCA), a serpin overexpressed in neoplastic cells of epithelial origin, is also expressed in liver cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma antigen was evaluated by immunohistochemistry in 65 HCCs of different aetiology and in 20 normal livers. Proliferative activity was assessed using MIB-1 antibody. In 18 surgical samples, tumour and nontumour liver tissue was available for SCCA cDNA amplification and sequencing. Squamous cell carcinoma antigen was detected in 55 out of 65 (85%) tumour specimens, but in none of the 20 controls. In the majority of the cases, the positive signal was found in the cytoplasm of more than 50% of the hepatocytes. Low or undetectable SCCA (score<or=1) was associated to lower MIB-1 labelling index, compared to cases with SCCA score >or=2 (mean+/-s.d.: 2%+/-2.4 vs 7.5%+/-10.3, P<0.05). Squamous cell carcinoma antigen mRNA could be directly sequenced in 14 out of 18 liver tumours but in none of the corresponding nontumour samples. From sequence alignment, a novel SCCA1 variant (G(351) to A) was identified in five cases, while SCCA1 was revealed in six cases and SCCA2 in three cases. In conclusion, SCCA variants are overexpressed in HCC, independently of tumour aetiology. A novel SCCA1 variant has been identified in one third of liver tumours.