AIMS: To investigate whether colonic cancer cells exfoliated into the lumen of the organ can be detected by identification of their abnormal CD44 gene products. METHODS: Exfoliated cells were obtained by centrifugation of saline wash-outs of 27 surgically resected colon specimens obtained from 15 patients with carcinoma, seven with ulcerative colitis and five with Crohn's disease. After extracting cellular mRNA, amplification by the reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) technique and analysis by Southern blot hybridisation was carried out to examine the levels and patterns of transcription of exons 11(v6), and 12(v7) and intron 9 of the CD44 gene. The transcription of these CD44 components was also examined by RT-PCR of snap-frozen solid tissue specimens from 11 of the above patients with colorectal carcinoma, seven with ulcerative colitis and five with Crohn's disease. RESULTS: Abnormal expression of exons 11(v6) and 12(v7) was detected in exfoliated cells from 11 (73%) of 15 patients with carcinoma, but not in any patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The retention of intron 9 in CD44 mRNA transcripts was detected in washings from four (27%) carcinoma specimens but not in washings from non-malignant specimens. It was confirmed that in solid tissue samples from the same carcinomas there was abnormal over-expression of numerous alternatively spliced CD44 species containing transcripts of exons 11 and 12 and retention of intron 9. Low level expression of these exons was detected in tissue from inflammatory lesions from five of seven patients with ulcerative colitis and four of five with Crohn's disease. The retention of intron 9 was not seen in normal mucosa nor IBD. CONCLUSION: Abnormal expression of the variant exons and of intron 9 of the CD44 gene in tumour cells exfoliated into the colonic lumen may be helpful markers for the early, non-invasive, diagnosis of colorectal cancer.