A highly sensitive measles-specific RT-PCR-nested PCR system was established, which consistently amplified measles virus genome sequence from control samples containing as little as 5.5 x 10(-3) pfu per reaction. This method failed to detect the presence of measles virus in 93 colonoscopic biopsies and 31 peripheral blood lymphocyte preparations, examined and obtained from patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and noninflammatory controls. All patients had detectable levels of serum neutralization antibody against measles virus. Each biopsy was estimated to have about one million cells, based on the amplification of the beta actin gene. The assay was calibrated by use of a known number of lymphocytes. The method applied was able to amplify measles virus RNA from a nucleic acid mixture equivalent to 18 cells derived from subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) brain material. The level of measles RNA present, if any, in the biopsies is therefore at least 50,000-fold less than in SSPE.