We have used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to measure keratin 19 mRNA in order to detect breast cancer cells invading axillary lymph nodes. In a consecutive series of 125 patients with primary breast cancer, 75 patients had no evidence of lymph node involvement by conventional histology. A total of 530 lymph nodes from these patients were examined and 106 (20%) gave a keratin 19 product detectable by Southern hybridisation. This correlated with primary tumour size (P<0.001). These 106 nodes came from 23 patients. Thus, using this technique, 23/75 (30.6%) patients were found to have evidence of lymph node involvement who would otherwise have been designated lymph node negative.