Melanoma antigen (MAGE)-encoding genes are expressed in various tumour types via demethylation of their promoter CpG islands, which are silent in all non-neoplastic tissues except for the testis and placenta. The clinicopathological significance of demethylation of MAGE genes in gastric carcinoma is not known. We investigated the promoter methylation status of MAGE-A1 and -A3 in 10 gastric cancer cell lines and in surgical specimens from 84 gastric cancer patients by methylation-specific PCR (MSP). Expression of MAGE-A1 and -A3 in the 10 gastric cancer cell lines was also investigated by RT-PCR. Any correlation between the methylation status of the MAGE promoters and clinicopathological characteristics of the gastric cancer patients was then assessed. Eight of the 10 gastric cancer cell lines showed demethylation of both MAGE-A1 and -A3, and the remaining two cell lines did either of MAGE-A1 or -A3. Expression of MAGE-A1 and -A3 was confirmed in seven and nine of the 10 gastric cancer cell lines, respectively. The MAGE-A1 and -A3 promoters were demethylated in 29% (25 out of 84) and 66% (56 out of 84) of the gastric tumour specimens, respectively. Demethylation of both MAGE-A1 and -A3 promoters (n=22) was found more frequently in gastric cancer patients in advanced clinical stages (P=0.0035), and these patients also exhibited a higher incidence of lymph node metastasis (P=0.0007) compared to those patients without demethylation (n=25). Furthermore, demethylation patients tended to have a worse prognosis, although this difference was not statistically significant (P=0.183). Demethylation of MAGE-A1 and -A3 occurs during progressive stages of gastric cancer, and may be associated with aggressive biological behaviour of gastric cancer.