We recently reported that the gold-labeled monoclonal antibody MAb 735, reactive with a long-chain form of alpha-2,8-linked polysialic acid (polySia) found on the neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM), is useful to immunohistochemically distinguish small-cell lung carcinomas from neuroendocrine carcinomas with higher grade of differentiation (carcinoids) and other types of lung carcinomas (Am J Pathol 1991;139:297). In this study, we tested the occurrence of polySia in various types of malignant thyroid tumors and C-cell hyperplasia to determine whether polySia is a useful adjunct for the differential diagnosis of medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC) and other thyroid neoplasms and to distinguish primary from secondary (reactive) C-cell hyperplasia (CCH). We examined formaldehyde-fixed and paraffin-embedded sections of 79 thyroid lesions, consisting of 33 MTC (14 familial and 19 sporadic tumors), 13 follicular, 11 papillary, 16 anaplastic carcinomas, and four glands with primary and two with secondary CCH. We applied a direct and an indirect immunogold-silver technique for polySia, CT, and CEA detection, respectively. All 33 MTC showed a strong cell-surface-associated immunoreactivity for polySia, which was sensitive to endoneuraminidase digestion. The polySia immunoreactivity of nerves served as an internal control in all specimens. Immunoreactivity for CT and CEA was present in all MTC with the exception of one recurrent tumor with features of an anaplastic MTC type. All other thyroid neoplasms were nonreactive for polySia, CT, and CEA. Primary CCH associated with MTC showed a strong polySia immunostaining, which was less intense in primary CCH not combined with MTC. In normal-appearing C cells and in secondary CCH, staining for polySia was absent in the majority of cases. We conclude that polySia of NCAM is a valuable marker to distinguish medullary carcinomas from other types of thyroid carcinomas. Furthermore, it allows for the discrimination of primary from secondary C-cell hyperplasia and may be helpful to better define the normal range of C cells in unaffected members of a family with a history of multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN)-II.