Hashimoto's thyroiditis is an inflammatory disease of the thyroid gland with autoimmune etiology. Patients afflicted with Hashimoto's have a higher risk of thyroid malignancies such as papillary thyroid carcinoma. In the present study, we investigated the frequency of papillary thyroid carcinoma specific genes in patients diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease. The newly identified oncogenes RET/PTC1 and RET/PTC3 provide useful and specific markers of the early stages of papillary carcinoma as they are highly specific for malignant cells. Using a sensitive and specific reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) assay, we found messenger RNA (mRNA) expression for the RET/PTC1 and RET/PTC3 oncogenes in 95% of the Hashimoto's patients studied. All Hashimoto's patients presenting without histopathologic evidence of papillary thyroid cancer showed molecular genetic evidence of cancer. These data suggest that multiple, independent occult tumors exist in these patients at high frequency.