Besides cell-bound adhesion molecules, which are of fundamental importance to a large number of physiological and pathological processes, soluble forms of adhesion molecules have been detected in the circulating blood in recent years. Circulating soluble adhesion molecules appear to be biologically active, and raised levels have been reported in a variety of disorders. In the present study, we used ELISA to measure the serum levels of four soluble adhesion molecules in 23 undialyzed patients with chronic renal failure (CRF), 13 patients on continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis (CAPD), 17 on chronic hemodialysis (HD) and 18 healthy controls having a similar mean and distribution of ages. The investigated soluble (s) molecules included intercellular adhesion molecule 1 (sICAM-1), vascular cell adhesion molecule 1 (sVCAM-1), sE-selectin and sP-selectin. sICAM-1 was found to be elevated in patients with CRF (p < 0.05), on CAPD (p < 0.02) and HD (p < 0.0001) compared with the controls but levels did not differ between the three patient groups. The higher sVCAM-1 values found in CRF (p < 0.02), CAPD (p < 0.05) and HD (p < 0.0001) as compared to controls again failed to differentiate the three groups of patients. Soluble E-selectin was also raised in the three groups (p < 0.0001) with no difference between them. Increased sP-selectin was found in CRF (p < 0.05), CAPD (p < 0.02) and in HD patients (p < 0.0001) compared to controls, and levels in HD were significantly higher (p < 0.02) than in CRF patients. Predialysis serum molecule levels did not differ between HD patients treated with cuprophan or with polyacrylonitrile dialyzers. HD sessions with both dialyzers had no effect on sICAM-1, while a decrease (p < 0.02) in sP-selectin was found after dialysis with cuprophan. In undialyzed patients with CRF, regression analysis showed a strong linear correlation between serum creatinine and serum levels of each soluble molecule. These results demonstrate that serum levels of soluble adhesion molecules ICAM-1, VCAM-1, E-selectin and P-selectin are elevated in both undialyzed patients with CRF and patients on CAPD or HD. The elevated serum levels of these proteins probably reflect inadequate clearance as well as enhanced synthesis/release.