CD27, a transmembrane disulfide-linked 55-kD homodimer, belongs to the nerve growth factor-receptor family, a group of homologous molecules involved in lymphocyte differentiation and selection. It is expressed on mature thymocytes, peripheral blood T cells, and a subpopulation of B cells. We investigated the expression of CD27 on malignant B cells representative for a broad range of stages in physiologic antigen- independent and -dependent B-cell development. In normal lymphoid tissue CD27+ B cells were only found in the peripheral blood (29.8% +/- 10.8%, n = 13) and in germinal centers. With the exception of pro-B and the majority of pre-pre-B acute lymphocytic leukemias and of myelomas, CD27 expression of variable intensity was detected on almost all immature and mature malignant B cells tested. Moreover, using a sandwich enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay we could show the presence of sometimes very high (up to 6,000 U/mL; normal values < 190 U/mL) amounts of the soluble 28- to 32-kD form of CD27 (sCD27) in the sera of patients with B-cell malignancies. The highest levels of sCD27 were observed in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and low-grade non-Hodgkin's lymphomas. Most importantly, both in transversal and longitudinal studies, we found a strong correlation between sCD27 levels in the serum and tumor load, indicating that sCD27 can be used as a disease-marker in patients with acute and chronic B-cell malignancies.