We developed and evaluated a prototype automated specimen preparation instrument for the specific capture of hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA with probes and magnetic bead-fluid separation. HCV RNA was isolated from serum by lysis of virus particles with a chaotropic agent, followed by hybridization of the RNA with biotinylated probes and capture of the hybridized RNA with streptavidin-coated paramagnetic particles. After washing of the hybrid-particle complexes to remove nonspecifically bound materials, the particles were resuspended in a specimen diluent and were then ready for amplification and detection with a fully automated PCR system (COBAS AMPLICOR; Roche Diagnostic Systems). The analytical sensitivity in the dilution series was 33 copies per ml or greater. Comparison of the test results with those obtained by a manual method based on organic extraction and precipitation of RNA (SepaGene RV-R; Sanko Junyaku Co., Ltd.) showed 93% (49 of 53 samples) sensitivity and 100% (12 of 12 samples) specificity. There was 94% overall agreement between results. When RNA was extracted by the manual method from serum containing 103 or 105 copies of HCV per ml in the presence of heparin, there was an inhibitory effect on detection of both HCV RNA and the internal control. In contrast, when RNA was extracted from the serum by the automated method, there was no inhibitory effect. This inhibitory effect of heparin on the manual method was also observed for a series of serum specimens from a hemodialysis patient, but the inhibitory effect was eliminated by the automated specimen preparation method. In summary, a fully automated RNA extraction system for PCR detection of HCV RNA by use of specific capture with probes and magnetic bead-fluid separation was shown to have performance similar to that of the conventional manual method. In addition, it successfully eliminated the inhibitory effect of the heparin in the serum and permitted the detection of HCV RNA in serum samples from a hemodialysis patient. The prototype automated RNA extraction system is suitable as a totally automated system, starting with RNA extraction to detection of HCV, if it was combined with the fully automated COBAS AMPLICOR PCR system.