We have attempted to better define host humoral immune response in neoplasia by quantitating serial circulating immune complex values before and after surgery in patients with primary or metastatic colorectal cancer. Circulating immune complex levels were correlated with serial carcinoembryonic antigen values and tumor courses in patients with primary resectable colorectal cancer (four patients), resectable liver metastases (three patients), diffuse liver metastases treated with regional chemotherapy (three patients), and untreated intrahepatic (one patient) and extrahepatic metastases (one patient). Circulating immune complex levels, as measured by an antigen-nonspecific assay, which utilized 4 percent polyethylene glycol insolubilization, were increased in all patients at presentation (734 delta OD450 +/- 381) when compared with normal human control sera (202 +/- 4, p less than 0.05). No particular relation was found between presenting circulating immune complex levels and tumor burden. Progressive circulating immune complex increases were demonstrated only in patients whose tumors were either completely removed or dramatically responded to regional therapy (that is, when the tumor antigen load, as reflected by the carcinoembryonic antigen value, rapidly diminished). Serum samples obtained at times of presumed antibody excess in the patients with gastrointestinal cancers were found to contain unexpectedly high concentrations of IgA. We believe these data demonstrate the kinetics of circulating immune complex change during tumor course and they have allowed us to begin to identify circulating immune complex components in patients with colorectal cancer. The results confirm our earlier findings in patients with gestational tumors and differ from accepted relations between immune complexes and tumor growth.