Distinguishing primary hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) from metastatic carcinomas to the liver is often difficult, if not impossible, particularly in needle biopsy and fine-needle aspiration specimens. In an attempt to identify a specific immunohistochemical profile that would distinguish HCC from metastatic carcinomas, we studied 56 HCCs, 8 cholangiocarcinomas, and 24 metastatic adenocarcinomas with monoclonal antibodies to alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), keratin (AE1, AE3, and CAM5.2), Leu-M1, human milk fat globule (HMFG-2), tumor-associated glycoprotein-72(B72.3), epithelial specific membrane antigen (Ber-EP4), and BCA-225 (CU-18). Both monoclonal and polyclonal (mCEA and pCEA) antibodies to carcinoembryonic antigen also were used. Metastatic adenocarcinomas were often positive for CU-18(71%), Leu-M1 (75%), B72.3 (50%), HMFG-2 (67%), Ber-EP4(83%) and mCEA(71%). Using these antibodies, the frequency of positivity for HCC was 9%, 16%, 11%, 20%, 36%, and 11%, respectively. CU-18 was the only monoclonal antibody in which there was a significant difference in positive rates between HCC and metastatic adenocarcinomas. Most HCCs (71%) revealed a bile canalicular staining pattern with pCEA. Because this staining pattern was absent in metastatic carcinomas, pCEA appears to be useful in confirming a diagnosis of HCC. AE1, AE3 and CAM5.2 antibodies were not useful in distinguishing HCC from metastatic carcinomas. Each cholangiocarcinoma shared a staining profile similar to that of metastatic carcinomas.