The growth rate of 31 asymptomatic hepatocellular carcinomas (diameter less than or equal to 5 cm) discovered in 28 patients by a prospective screening program was determined by real-time ultrasonography over 36-860 days. Except for one tumor that shrank on follow-up, the doubling time ranged from 29 to 398 days, with a median of 117 days, an arithmetic mean of 136 days, and a geometric mean of 110 days. In 17 tumors with more than two measurements, the growth rate remained exponential in nine, declined in growth in seven, and showed an initial lag period in one. Doubling time correlated with initial tumor diameter but was independent of the patient's age, sex, hepatitis B surface antigen status, tumor location, liver function tests, stage of liver cirrhosis, histologic type, or grade of malignancy. Although initial alpha-fetoprotein levels did not correlate well with growth rate, in 14 patients with an exponential increase of serum alpha-fetoprotein, the alpha-fetoprotein doubling time was closely related to the tumor doubling time. Based on the above data, the median detectable subclinical period of hepatocellular carcinoma was deduced to be 3.2 yr, and the suitable screening interval for its early detection in our area was 4-5 mo.