Serum hepatocyte growth factor/scatter factor (HGF/SF) levels were measured in 25 patients with small cell lung cancer (SCLC), 16 patients with benign lung diseases and 15 healthy subjects with an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. The patients with SCLC did not have bacterial or interstitial pneumonia. Patients with benign lung diseases included eight with bacterial pneumonia, three with interstitial pneumonia, and five with benign lung tumor. Serum HGF/SF levels were significantly higher in patients with SCLC (mean +/- S.D.: 0.40 +/- 0.17 ng/ml) than in healthy subjects (0.26 +/- 0.093 ng/ml) (P = 0.0083). Patients with bacterial pneumonia had significantly higher serum HGF/SF (0.52 +/- 0.19 ng/ml) than did those with benign lung tumors (0.27 +/- 0.058 ng/ml) and healthy subjects (P = 0.013 and P = 0.0019, respectively). By clinical stage of SCLC, HGF/SF levels were 0.34 +/- 0.12 and 0.47 +/- 0.20 ng/ml in patients with limited disease and extensive disease, respectively; this difference was not significant (P = 0.080). Although serum HGF/SF levels were increased in patients with SCLC, this increase might not have been related to tumor burden.