Patients with malignant melanoma and distant metastases generally have an unfavorable prognosis, with a median survival of about 6 months. The mechanisms of hematogenous spread and implantation of melanoma cells are, however, poorly understood, because the standard diagnostic methods are not sensitive enough to detect oligocellular micrometastases. Recently a method using reverse transcription and polymerase chain reaction to determine tyrosinase mRNA in peripheral blood, which indicates the presence of circulating melanoma cells, has been developed. We utilized this assay to examine blood samples of 56 patients with malignant melanoma in different stages of disease. In one of 10 patients in stage I (localized disease) and in six of 17 patients with regional lymph nodes metastases (stage II) tyrosinase mRNA was detected. Tyrosinase transcripts were found in all 29 patients with distant metastases (stage III). Interestingly, tyrosinase mRNA was also detected in six patients with metastatic amelanotic malignant melanoma. In contrast, tyrosinase mRNA was not detectable in any of 39 healthy subjects or 17 patients with other malignancies. These findings may be helpful to define a patient group at high risk for systemic spread of disease.