Ductular reaction and putative progenitor cells (or 'progenitor cells'), which are presumed to be the human counterpart of the oval cells in rat liver, have been discerned in various human liver diseases, including chronic viral hepatitis. Since in experimental models of chronic hepatitis the activation of oval cells is correlated with the inflammatory infiltrate, this study investigated whether there is a correlation in chronic viral hepatitis between the number of 'progenitor cells' extending into the lobule and the severity of parenchymal inflammation, on the one hand, and the extent of ductular reaction and the severity of interface hepatitis, on the other hand. Liver biopsies of 55 patients with chronic hepatitis B and/or C were used. The severity of parenchymal inflammation and of interface hepatitis was semiquantitatively graded on a haematoxylin and eosin-stained paraffin section, while the number of 'progenitor cells' and the extent of the ductular reaction were assessed on a serial section stained for cytokeratin (CK) 7. In addition, more extensive phenotyping of 'progenitor cells' was performed on sections from frozen material from five patients, using antibodies against CK7, CK8, CK18, CK19, chromogranin-A, and the rat oval cell marker OV-6. The number of more centrally located 'progenitor cells' correlated significantly with the severity of the parenchymal inflammation, while the extent of the ductular reaction correlated significantly with the severity of interface hepatitis. These findings suggest that in chronic viral hepatitis, inflammation plays a role in 'progenitor cell' activation and its topography. In cases with moderate and severe lobular inflammation, 'progenitor cells' were strikingly scattered throughout the parenchyma and surrounded by intermediate hepatocyte-like cells, suggesting their migration into the parenchyma and their differentiation towards the hepatocytic lineage.