Disseminated breast tumour cells in sentinel lymph nodes (SNs) were evaluated by quantitative real-time PCR and the sensitivity of this assay was compared to the routine histological analysis. First, several candidate marker genes were tested for their specificity in axillary lymph nodes (ALN) of 50 breast cancer patients and 43 women without breast cancer. The marker gene panel selected, designed to detect the mRNA of CK19, p1B, EGP2 and SBEM, was subsequently applied to detect metastases in 70 SNs that were free of metastases as determined by standard histological evaluation. Remarkably, seven negative SNs showed increased marker gene expression, suggesting the presence of (micro) metastases. Four of these seven SNs positive by real-time PCR proved to contain tumour deposits after careful review of the slides or further sectioning of the paraffin-embedded material. In three PCR positive SNs, however, no tumour cells were found by haematoxylin and eosin staining (H&E) and immunohistologically analysis. The quantitative real-time PCR assay with multiple mRNA markers for the detection of disseminated breast cancer cells in SNs thus resulted in an upstaging of SNs containing metastastic disease of 10% compared to the routine histological analysis. The application of this technique may be of clinical relevance, as it is suggested that micrometastatic disease in SNs are associated with further nodal non-SN metastases in breast cancer.