Gastrin has been shown to stimulate the growth of carcinogenic-induced colon cancer in animals, and some human colon cancers grown in vitro or as xenografts in nude mice. We determined fasting plasma gastrin levels in control subjects and patients with adenomatous polyps or adenocarcinoma of the colon to determine whether abnormal levels occurred in either patient group. Blood samples were obtained from 73 patients undergoing colonoscopy, primarily for evaluation of Hemoccult-positive stools. Fasting plasma gastrin was significantly greater in patients with adenomatous polyps (24.2 +/- 5.7 pM, N = 25) or colon cancer (84.5 +/- 28.5 pM, N = 20) than in controls (9.9 +/- 0.9 pM, N = 28). Elevations were due to gastrin values greater than control mean + 2 SD in nine patients with polyps (19.5-150.2 pM) and eight with cancer (20.7-403.2 pM). None of the patients had identifiable causes (drugs, prior surgery) for elevated gastrin levels. Our results indicate that elevated plasma gastrin occurs in subgroups of patients with adenomatous polyps or adenocarcinoma of the colon. The cause and potential role of elevated gastrin for polyp and tumor growth in these patients is not known.