The relationship between serum hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA and the outcome of alpha-interferon (alpha-IFN) therapy in patients with chronic hepatitis C has important implications for therapeutic research and clinical care. Serum HCV RNA was tested for HCV genotype and quantified by a standardized reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction assay as a measure of viral load in a cohort of 130 patients with chronic hepatitis C treated with alpha-IFN at a standard dose of 3 million units three times a week scheduled for 6 (n = 50) or 12 months (n = 76). Twenty-one of 126 evaluable patients (16.7%) developed a sustained complete response to alpha-IFN according to biochemical and virological criteria. The 3 pretreatment independent factors associated with a sustained complete response were a low baseline serum HCV RNA concentration, non-1 HCV genotype, and female sex. A multivariate logistic regression model, with pretreatment and month 1 variables, showed that a lower baseline serum HCV RNA concentration, female sex, and a greater suppression of RNA were the significant predictors of sustained complete response. The lowest baseline serum HCV RNA concentration was observed in patients with genotype 2 infection and the greatest decrease in HCV RNA from baseline to month 1 in those with genotype 3. The findings suggest that measuring HCV RNA in serum before and soon after beginning treatment can be helpful for selecting patients who are most likely to have a sustained complete response to standard schedule of alpha-IFN and for identifying patients in whom alternative strategies should be examined.