The Long-Evans Cinnamon (LEC) rat is characterized by the spontaneous onset of acute and chronic hepatitis, followed by occurrence of liver cancer, and is thus able to provide a unique experimental model for human genetical liver disease, Wilson's disease. Hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) is a potent hepatotrophic factor in liver regeneration, and its expression is up-regulated in response to liver injuries. We found that the plasma HGF level in LEC rats rose markedly during the fulminant hepatitis phase, fell during the phase of chronic/cholangiofibrosis, and fluctuated during the hepatoma phase. Immunohistological staining of the liver revealed that the number of HGF-positive cells increased remarkably during the fulminant hepatitis phase, and that many of these cells were localized at the portal triads. Fewer HGF-positive cells were observed during the phase of chronic hepatitis. The surface of the hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cells and the cytoplasm of the nonepithelial cells in cancerous liver tissues were HGF-positive. The HGF-messenger RNA (mRNA) level in the liver rose in the fulminant hepatitis phase, fell in the chronic hepatitis phase, and was intermediate or high during the hepatoma phase. The expression of c-met mRNA was strong in the tissues of LEC rats with fulminant hepatitis and, especially, in the cholangiofibrosis tissues. c-met mRNA was also detected in HCCs. These results suggest that the HGF-c-met system may play an important role in the regeneration of hepatocytes as well as in the development of HCC in paracrine or autocrine mechanisms.