A diversity of adhesive interactions occur between the cancer cell and host extracellular matrix which potentiate neoplastic expansion and metastatic dissemination. In miscellaneous malignant diseases, tumour progression has been observed to be associated with alterations in adhesion molecule expression. Recently, circulating soluble intercellular adhesion molecules have been identified. In this study, serum levels of soluble intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (sICAM-1) and soluble E-selectin (sE-selectin) were determined in patients with gastric cancer. The study group consisted of 27 patients with previously untreated gastric adenocarcinoma. Four patients had stage II, two patients stage III and 21 patients stage IV disease according to the TNM classification. Nineteen patients had distant metastasis. The sera obtained from 18 healthy volunteers served as controls. Serum sICAM-1 and sE-selectin concentrations were determined by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). In addition, we also studied other tumour-associated antigens, i.e. CEA and CA 19-9, Serum sICAM-1 levels were significantly increased in patients with gastric cancer (P < 0.0001), However, sE-selectin levels did not differ from the controls, sICAM-1 concentrations were also significantly higher in patients with distant metastasis and peritoneal spread (P = 0.0045 and P = 0.0157 respectively), whereas sE-Selectin levels were elevated only in patients with peritoneal metastasis (P = 0.033). Serum concentrations of sICAM-1 and sE-selectin correlated with CEA levels (P = 0.0013 and P = 0.003 respectively). Elevated levels of sE-selectin were associated with poorer prognosis (P = 0.0099), whereas sICAM-1 had no significant impact on survival. Our results suggest that increased sICAM-1 serum levels may reflect widespread disease and contribute directly to the progression of gastric cancer. Further investigation of the molecular mechanisms of adhesive tumour-host interactions may lead to a better understanding of the natural history of gastric cancer.