Many cancers display characteristic organ colonization patterns that do not fit simple, anatomical-mechanical trapping theories of tumor cell dissemination. Organ preferences of metastatic spread appear to be mediated partly by the selective attachment of tumor cells to organ-specific, microvascular endothelium. To study these tumor cell-endothelial cell interactions in an efficient and reproducible manner, we have designed a novel in vitro assay system wherein endothelial cells isolated from large vessels (e.g., aorta) can be modulated to assume phenotypic traits of organ-specific, microvascular endothelium. Modulation is achieved by growing bovine aortic endothelial cells (BAEC) on organ-specific matrix components, termed tumor attachment modulators (TAMs). Using monolayers of modulated BAEC in a tumor attachment assay, we show here that tumor cells which metastasize to a given organ, have a significantly higher binding affinity for BAEC grown on TAMs of the preferred, metastasized organ, than they have for BAEC grown on TAMs of any other organ not colonized by these tumor cells. Lung-metastatic tumor cells (R3230AC-MET, B16-F10) adhere preferentially to BAEC monolayers grown on lung-specific TAMs, whereas liver-metastatic tumor cells (RAW117-H10, M5076) selectively adhere to BAEC grown on liver-specific TAMs. In contrast, nonmetastatic tumors cells (R3230AC-LR, RBTCC-1, 647V) show no such adhesion preferences. Preferential tumor cell adherence is increased by growing BAEC for prolonged periods on organ-specific TAMs. Metastatic preference and organ distribution are mediated, at least in part, by urea-extractable endothelial cell surface components that are regulated by the extracellular matrix.