Employing a cytochemical assay initially developed for measuring parathyroid hormone (PTH), bioactivity was assessed in 33 patients with malignancies. Initial studies in vitro were consistent with a role for cAMP as a second messenger in the bioassay. Cytochemical bioactivity was increased in the peripheral plasma of 10 of 16 hypercalcemic patients with elevated nephrogenous cAMP excretion, and mean levels were 10- fold higher in these patients than in 17 normocalcemic or hypercalcemic patients with normal or suppressed nephrogenous cAMP excretion, respectively. Plasma bioactivity, serum calcium, and nephrogenous cAMP excretion all fell to normal in 1 patient after tumor resection, and cytochemical bioactivity was demonstrable in the tissue culture medium in which the neoplasm was maintained. Gel chromatographic analysis revealed that a major component of plasma bioactivity eluted before rather than with PTH-(l-84) in patients with malignancy in contrast with that in patients with primary hyperparathyroidism. The studies, therefore, demonstrate the capacity of the cytochemical bioassay to measure increased activity in patients with malignancy, hypercalcemia, and elevated nephrogenous cAMP excretion; suggest that the material responsible for the activity differs from PTH- (1-84); and provide a sensitive detector system for further analysis of this material and its role in the pathogenesis of this disease.