Monoclonal antibodies (MCAs) can be used to differentiate between normal and neoplastic cells and thus exploited for diagnostic and, ultimately, therapeutic gain. The evidence for the existence of human tumour antigens is reviewed. Several areas of diagnosis are already benefiting from the application of the monoclonal technology. Immunohistology can help the pathologist with difficult diagnostic problems. New classifications of lymphoma and leukaemia can be based on specific surface molecules. Similarly, the detection of shed tumour antigens is already established as part of the routine assessment of many patients with common solid tumours. Isotopically labeled monoclonal antibodies have been used to localise primary and metastatic tumours. The use of antibodies in this way is not only a promising diagnostic tool but also the first step in studying the possibility of arming antibodies to provide therapeutic agents. Such trials are currently in progress. 69 refs.; 7 figs.; 3 tabs.