AIMS: To determine the usefulness of antibodies HBME-1 and antithrombomodulin in the differential diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma of the pleura. METHODS: Using microwave antigen retrieval and streptavidin-biotin complex horseradish peroxidase immunohistochemistry the above antibodies were used to stain sections of 57 malignant mesotheliomas, 17 reactive pleural hyperplasias, 23 cases of carcinoma metastatic in pleura, 20 primary ovarian cell carcinomas, and 20 primary renal cell carcinomas. RESULTS: Eighty six per cent of mesotheliomas and 82% of reactive mesothelial hyperplasias stained strongly with HBME-1. However, 48% of carcinomas metastatic to pleura also stained, as did all serous ovarian carcinomas. Seventy two per cent of mesotheliomas and 24% of reactive mesothelial hyperplasias stained strongly with the antithrombomodulin antibody; 86% and 88%, respectively, of these cases showed staining of any type. While 26% of metastatic carcinomas showed some staining with antithrombomodulin, only one third of these (9%) showed strong, yet focal, staining. Of 40 ovarian and renal carcinomas only two (5%) showed any staining with antithrombomodulin. CONCLUSIONS: HBME-1, although a sensitive mesothelial marker, is not sufficiently specific to be useful diagnostically, as almost half of carcinomas metastatic to pleura also stained positive. Antithrombomodulin is also a sensitive mesothelial marker and is sufficiently specific to be a useful discriminator, positively identifying, in appropriate circumstances, the mesothelial nature of a cell population.