BACKGROUND: During the past decade, the National Cancer Institute became aware of a lack of availability of human tissues for research, especially in the fields of molecular biology, genetics, and immunology. METHODS: In 1987, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) established the Cooperative Human Tissue Network (CHTN) by funding three institutions that had extensive experience in the procurement and distribution of tissues for research. RESULTS: Since its inception, the CHTN has been expanded to five member institutions, with the addition of the Columbus Children's Hospital (the Pediatric Division for the procurement of pediatric tissues) and Case Western Reserve University. Each of the five divisions have established regional networks of institutions that supply tissues to the major divisions. From 1987 through 1991, the CHTN has distributed more than 29,000 human tissue samples and supplied approximately 500 researchers throughout the country. CONCLUSIONS: This report describes the development and current status of the CHTN, a valuable resource to the research community.