Telomerase is a ribonucleoprotein enzyme which stabilizes chromosomal structure, thereby inducing cellular immortality. Three major subunits composing telomerase complex have been cloned, designated hTR (human telomerase RNA), TPI (telomerase-associated protein I), and hTERT (human telomerase reverse transcriptase). In the present study, a total of 36 renal-cell carcinomas (RCC) and adjacent normal tissues, as well as cell lines derived from RCC or normal kidney, were examined for the expression of each telomerase subunit and telomerase activity. RT-PCR analyses revealed that hTR and TP I mRNA were constitutively expressed both in tumor and in normal tissues. In contrast, hTERT mRNA was expressed in most tumors, but not in normal tissues. Telomeric-repeat-amplification-protocol (TRAP) assay revealed that more than 80% of RCC tumor tissue exhibited telomerase activity, while none of the adjacent normal tissue did. There was a significant association of telomerase activity with expression of hTERT mRNA, but not with TPI mRNA or hTR expression. Two cell lines, derived from RCC and cervical cancer, expressed telomerase activity and hTERT mRNA, while normal renal cortical epithelial cells expressed neither of them. These findings suggest that hTERT plays a critical role in determining the enzymatic activity of human telomerase, and that up-regulation of hTERT probably plays a role in the progression of human cancers.