The development of hepatocellular carcinoma in rodents treated with different chemical compounds is associated with the appearance in the cytosol of neoplastic liver cells of an unusual aldehyde dehydrogenase isozyme of class 3 (ALDH-3) which is very active with aromatic aldehydes. This tumor-associated isozyme is readily detected by enzyme cytochemistry using the substrate benzaldehyde with NADP as coenzyme. To determine whether human hepatocellular carcinomas express ALDH-3, the activity of this isozyme was examined in frozen sections from 68 echo-guided human liver biopsies. In 54 cases the guided biopsy was performed on one or more nodules suggestive for hepatocellular carcinoma found at ultrasonography within the liver parenchyma. The remaining 14 patients were affected by chronic active hepatitis or cirrhosis. An intense enzymatic activity was ascertained in 5 out of 36 hepatocellular carcinomas. In non-neoplastic liver, in macroregenerative nodules and in metastatic adenocarcinomas enzymatic activity was not detectable. ALDH-3-positive tumors were typical hepatocellular carcinomas (histological grade II and III). These results suggest that ALDH-3 is a phenotype associated with malignancy in human liver tumors.