Only small numbers of cells from solid tumours are needed for haematogenous metastasis. Detection is difficult because existing techniques are not sensitive enough. We have used reverse transcriptase to make complementary DNA from peripheral blood messenger RNA, and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify cDNA specific for a gene actively transcribed only in the tumour tissue type. We prepared cDNA from peripheral blood of seven patients with malignant melanoma, four patients with other metastatic cancers, and four healthy subjects, as well as from several melanoma-derived cell lines. PCR was used to amplify the gene for tyrosinase, a tissue-specific gene in melanocytes. Since normal melanocytes are not thought to circulate in peripheral blood, detection of tyrosinase transcription in peripheral blood should indicate the presence of circulating cancer cells. The method was highly sensitive and could detect a single melanoma cell from a cell line in 2 ml normal blood. Blood samples from four of the seven patients with malignant melanoma gave positive results, whereas all eight control subjects gave negative results. This method does not depend on the characterisation of cancer-specific genetic abnormalities and can be applied to any cancer for which tissue-specific genes can be identified, including epithelial cancers. It could prove useful in the diagnosis of primary or metastatic cancers, in assessing prognosis, and in detecting residual disease after treatment.