Indian childhood cirrhosis (ICC) is a fatal liver disease characterized by the accumulation of copper-sulfur aggregates. We demonstrated that cultured fibroblasts from a patient with ICC contain vesicular aggregates, fibrillar whorls, and crystalloids along with dilated rough endoplasmic reticulum filled with flocculent material. Although the copper content of the fibroblasts was normal, both basal and metal-induced metallothionein (MT) synthesis was reduced in the ICC cells. The lower MT synthesis in ICC cells was seen at copper concentrations of 100, 200, and 400 μM, zinc concentrations of 50 and 100 μM, and a cadmium concentration of 2 μM. The lower MT synthesis in ICC cells was not due to failure of the cells to take up copper because 67Cu uptake kinetics were normal in the mutant cells. MT degradation was also normal in the ICC cells. The size of human MT HA mRNA was normal in the ICC cells, but its amount was reduced under both basal and metal-induced conditions. The MT HA gene, which is the predominant MT gene in human beings, showed no sequence alterations in any of its exons, introns, or promoter region in the ICC cells compared with normal cells. These studies demonstrate that this case of ICC represents a genetic disease with some level of expression in cultured fibroblasts; the basic defect may involve insufficient MT mRNA and protein synthesis for the copper load present. However, it remains to be determined whether reduced MT synthesis is a primary or secondary phenomenon.