Transforming growth factor alpha (TGF alpha), a polypeptide growth-stimulating factor, has been implicated to play a role in the progression of gastrointestinal (GI) cancer. It has been suggested that TGF alpha expression in tumors or TGF alpha in the biological fluids of cancer patients may have tumor marker value. The serum levels of TGF alpha in GI cancer patients have not been reported. In this study, the serum TGF alpha levels of 100 GI cancer patients, as well as 74 healthy individuals, were determined by a TGF alpha-specific RIA kit. All of the cancer patient sera and 67% of the normal sera had detectable levels of TGF alpha. The TGF alpha concentrations in GI cancer patients ranged from 119 to 760 pg/ml, with a mean value of 269 +/- 102 pg/ml. Fifty normal individuals had detectable levels of TGF alpha, and their levels ranged from 120 to 207 pg/ml, with a mean value of 147 +/- 18 pg/ml. Differences in serum TGF alpha concentration between cancer patients and healthy individuals were found to be statistically significant, as evaluated by Mann-Whitney and Student's t tests. Serum TGF alpha levels were found to be significantly elevated in all disease stages of gastric, pancreas, colon, and rectal cancers, and only in the late stages of esophageal cancer. Serum carcinoembryonic antigen levels were significantly elevated only in the late stages of these diseases. The potential of serum TGF alpha as a tumor marker for GI malignancy, therefore, warrants further investigation.