Cytological examination of peritoneal washes is a useful predictor of peritoneal recurrence in gastric carcinoma patients. In the present study, even more sensitive detection of free cancer cells could be achieved through amplification of carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) mRNA by means of the reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). CEA was first confirmed to be present in all the gastric cancer cell lines examined, irrespective of the differentiation degree, and absent in blood and mesothelium, indicating the specificity of this approach for detection of carcinoma cells in peritoneal lavage fluid. In sensitivity tests, CEA RT-PCR proved to be capable of detecting 10 carcinoma cells per sample. Peritoneal washes of 15 of 48 gastric carcinoma patients, including all 10 patients with positive cytology results, proved positive for CEA mRNA. None of the 5 patients with benign disease was positive. Moreover, a close association with the depth of cancer invasion was established. The results indicate that the assay is more sensitive for detection of free carcinoma cells in the peritoneal cavity than conventional cytology. This is the first study to suggest the feasibility of the RT-PCR method for prediction of peritoneal recurrence in gastric cancer patients.