In this study, the target-specific behavior of magnetic resonance (MR) imaging contrast agents directed at human hepatic asialoglycoprotein (ASG) receptors was evaluated in vitro with use of two novel assays: relaxation time measurements of incubated human cell membrane solutions and iron staining of biopsy samples. Specific uptake of ASG receptor-directed agents was demonstrated in human samples of normal liver tissue, areas of hepatitis, regenerating nodules, areas of focal nodular hyperplasia, and hepatic adenomas. A conventional iron oxide preparation not directed at ASG receptors failed to demonstrate specific uptake in these tissues. Attachment of the ASG receptor-directed agents was competitively blocked with a receptor agonist (D(+)-galactose) in these tissues. No attachment of conventional or receptor agents was seen in areas of hepatocellular carcinoma, cholangiocarcinoma, or liver metastases. The studies indicate that in vitro receptor assays are useful in predicting the affinity of new receptor-directed MR imaging contrast agents in human tissue prior to clinical trials.