A human tumor necrosis factor (TNF) binding protein from serum of cancer patients was purified to homogeneity and partially sequenced. Synthetic DNA probes based on amino acid sequence information were used to isolate cDNA clones encoding a receptor for TNF. The TNF receptor (TNF-R) is a 415 amino acid polypeptide with a single membrane-spanning region. The extracellular cysteine-rich domain of the TNF-R is homologous to the nerve growth factor receptor and the B cell activation protein Bp50. Human embryonic kidney cells transfected with a TNF-R expression vector specifically bind both 125I-labeled and biotinylated TNF-alpha. Unlabeled TNF-alpha and TNF-beta were equally effective at displacing the binding of labeled TNF-alpha to TNF-R expressing cells. Northern analysis indicates a single species of mRNA for the TNF-R in a variety of cell types. Therefore, the soluble TNF binding protein found in human serum is probably proteolytically derived from the TNF-R.