We retrospectively analyzed the predictive accuracy of serial determinations of galactose elimination capacity in 61 patients with primary biliary cirrhosis. Death was predicted from the time that the regression line describing the decline in galactose elimination capacity vs. time intersected a value of 4 mg.min-1.kg-1. Thirty-one patients exhibited decreasing galactose elimination capacity; in 11 patients it remained stable and in 19 patients only one value was available. Among those patients with decreasing galactose elimination capacity, 10 died and three underwent liver transplantation; prediction of death was accurate to 7 +/- 19 mo. This criterion incorrectly predicted death in two patients with portal-vein thrombosis; otherwise, it did better than or as well as the Mayo clinic score. The latter was also tested on our patients and was found to adequately describe risk in yet another independent population of patients with primary biliary cirrhosis. Cox regression analysis selected only bilirubin and galactose elimination capacity, however, as independent predictors of death. We submit that serial determination of galactose elimination capacity in patients with primary biliary cirrhosis may be a useful adjunct to optimize the timing of liver transplantation and to evaluate new pharmacological treatment modalities of this disease.