Somatostatin (SS) receptor status was investigated in the tumor tissues from 62 patients with carcinoid tumors and 15 patients with islet cell carcinomas using receptor autoradiography techniques with two different iodinated somatostatin analogues as radioligands, a [Leu8, DTrp22, Tyr25]somatostatin-28 and a somatostatin octapeptide, Tyr3-octreotide. The carcinoid tumors were either primaries (n = 32) or netastases (n = 43), sampled as surgical specimens or as small needle liver biopsies. Fifty-four of 62 carcinoid patients had SS receptor-positive tumors (87%). All 15 islet cell carcinoma patients had positive tumors (4 primaries, 11 metastases), i.e., 3 vipomas, 3 insulinomas, 2 glucagonomas, 1 gastrinoma, 2 polyfunctional tumors, and 4 nonfunctioning tumors. Saturation and competition experiments on tissue sections revealed saturable, high affinity binding sites pharmacologically specific for bioactive SS analogues. In a majority of the tumors, the receptors were densely distributed and were always homogeneously found in the whole tumor. All except two tumors were labeled with both radioligands. Multiple liver metastases (n = 16) from three different patients were all shown to contain a comparable amount of receptors. SS receptors could be demonstrated even in very small tissue samples of liver metastases obtained by percutaneous liver biopsies (mean weight, 6.8 mg). The majority of the eight SS receptor-negative carcinoids were mainly bronchial carcinoids (n = 5), usually poorly differentiated. On the contrary, SS receptor-positive cases were never found to be anaplastic. All tumors except one from patients pretreated with octreotide (3 days to 3.8 years) were SS receptor positive. In the majority of carcinoids or islet cell carcinomas, the SS receptor status correlated with the in vivo biochemical response (hormone inhibition) to octreotide. These data demonstrate (a) the high prevalence of SS receptors in the primary tumors of both carcinoids and islet cell carcinomas, (b) their presence in metastases as well, (c) their continuous expression even during long term octreotide therapy, (d) the possibility of measuring SS receptors in percutaneous needle liver biopsies, and (e) the evidence of their functionality. This study therefore suggests that tumoral SS receptors may be the likely molecular basis for octreotide action and may be an important parameter for predicting the therapeutic efficacy of SS analogues in carcinoids and islet cell carcinomas.