Background: Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a highly aggressive and heterogeneous disease. HCC cell lines established from different patients would be useful in elucidating the molecular pathogenesis. However, success of HCC primary culture establishment remains at low rate. We aim to establish and characterize HCC primary culture and the derived cell line. Methods: Fresh tumor tissues were collected from 30 HCC patients. Culture conditions were optimized for the attachment and growth of the isolated hepatocytes. Granulin-epithelin precursor (GEP), a growth factor reported to associate with cancer stem cell properties, was examined by flow cytometry to elucidate its role on primary culture establishment. The primary cell line was characterized in detail. Results: Cells isolated from 16 out of 30 HCC cases (53%) had viability more than 70% and were subject to subsequent in vitro culture. 7 out of 16 cases (44%) could give rise to cells that were able to attach and grow in culture. GEP expression levels significantly correlated with the viability of isolated hepatocytes and success rate of subsequent primary culture establishment. Cells from HCC patient 21 grew and expanded rapidly in vitro and was selected to be further characterized. The line, designated HCC21, derived from a Hong Kong Chinese female patient with HCC at Stage II. The cells exhibited typical epithelial morphology and expressed albumin, AFP and HBV antigens. The cell line was authenticated by short tandem repeat analysis. Comparative genome hybridization analysis revealed chromosomal loss at 1p35-p36, 1q44, 2q11.2-q24.3, 2q37, 4q12-q13.3, 4q21.21-q35.2, 8p12-p23, 15q11.2-q14, 15q24-q26, 16p12.1-p13.3, 16q, 17p, 22q and gain at 1q21-q43 in both HCC21 cells and the original clinical tumor specimen. Sequence analysis revealed p53 gene mutation. Subcutaneous injection of HCC21 cells into immunodeficient mice showed that the cells were able to form tumors at the primary injection sites and metastatic tumors in the peritoneal cavity. Conclusions: The newly established cell line could serve as useful in vitro and in vivo models for studying primary HCC that possess metastasis ability.