The prognosis for patients with primary liver cancer (PLC) often depends on tumor recurrence and the development of extrahepatic metastases, particularly after liver transplantation. We have developed a sensitive test to detect both spontaneous circulation of tumor cells and the spread of liver cells due to chemoembolization and alcoholization. Reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction was used to search for cells expressing alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) messenger RNA in the peripheral blood of 84 patients with PLC and 102 controls (55 patients with chronic hepatitis and/or cirrhosis, 10 patients with benign liver tumors or liver metastases from intestinal cancers, and 37 healthy individuals). By spiking the blood of healthy volunteers with HepG2 cells, we assessed the sensitivity limit: one HepG2 cell mixed with 10(7) leukocytes. All 102 controls tested negative. In contrast, 28 patients (33.3%) with PLC tested positive. Positivity for the test was significantly associated with portal thrombosis, tumor size, intravascular tumor emboli, serum AFP level, and extrahepatic metastases. Patients were followed up for a mean period of 39 +/- 51 weeks: the probability of developing extrahepatic metastases was significantly higher in positive than in negative patients. Eighteen negative patients with PLC were tested before, 1 hour after, and 24 hours after locoregional therapy: 9 tested positive either 1 or 24 hours after alcoholization or chemoembolization. In conclusion, we have developed a highly specific and sensitive test to detect circulating tumor cells in patients with PLC. This test is likely to be clinically useful in evaluating the risk of developing extrahepatic metastases and the possibility of iatrogenic spreading of liver-derived, possibly tumorous, cells.