Gangliosides were isolated from the sera of recently diagnosed breast-cancer patients and from individuals who were apparently free of disease. Quantitative and qualitative analyses were carried out by 2-dimensional high-performance thin-layer chromatography and gas chromatography. The locations of isolated gangliosides on thin-layer chromatograms were determined by visualization with resorcinol, and each spot was quantified by digital image densitometry. The ganglioside profiles of cancer patients were compared to those of the control group, revealing a significant increase in total lipid-bound sialic acid and a specific increase in polysialogangliosides in the patients with breast cancer. Furthermore, an increase was noted in the ratio of gangliosides of the b-series biosynthetic pathway over those of the a-series in the cancer sera, as compared to the controls. Gas chromatographic analysis of the peracetylated methanolysis mixtures derived from the total ganglioside fraction of cancer patients supported the HPTLC data, with an increase in total sialic acid, galactose, and sphingosine residues. No unusual gangliosides were found in the mixture from breast-cancer patients. © 1995 Wiley-Liss, Inc.