The current goal of interferon treatment for chronic hepatitis C is to normalize alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and to eradicate detectable viral RNA. Many patients do not achieve this objective during treatment, and most do not sustain these outcomes after interferon is discontinued. However, biochemical or virological responses to interferon may not reflect accurately the histological consequences of therapy. The aim of this study was to determine the extent to which the biochemical measures reflect the histological outcomes in the treatment of hepatitis C with interferon alfa using a meta-analysis of diagnostic test characteristics. The data sources were English and non-English language studies retrieved from Medline (from 1966 to December 1995). The study selection included studies in which interferon alfa was used for treatment of chronic hepatitis C with liver biopsies performed before and after therapy. Data on histological and biochemical outcomes were extracted independently by two reviewers. Two separate criteria were used for defining histological response. When strict definitions of histological improvement were considered, histology improved in 28% (95% confidence interval [95% CI], 17%-43%) of patients after interferon treatment. The sensitivity and specificity of the ALT for determining histological change were 70% (95% CI, 56%-81%) and 66% (95% CI, 56%-75%), respectively. As many as 17% (95% CI, 9%-30%) of subjects with an abnormal ALT at the end of therapy may have improved histologically after interferon therapy. When less stringent definitions of histological improvement were considered, 62% (95% CI, 51%-72%) improved after therapy. The sensitivity and specificity of the ALT for determining histological change were 55% (95% CI, 44%-65%) and 75% (95% CI, 67%-81%), respectively. As many as 51% (95% CI, 38%-64%) may have improved, despite failure to normalize ALT. A substantial number of patients may improve histologically after interferon therapy. The significance of histological changes observed after interferon therapy must be weighed against the limitations of liver biopsy and the uncertain natural history of hepatitis C. Nevertheless, the ALT does not always reflect liver histology accurately after interferon alfa treatment and may underestimate histological improvement.