Bak is a pro-apoptotic member of the Bcl-2 family whose genes are involved in regulation of programmed cell death. Using in situ hybridization, immunohistochemistry, and Northern blot analysis, we studied the expression of Bak in specimens from 12 normal pancreata and 26 primary pancreatic cancers, and correlated the findings with the clinical and histopathologic data of the patients. By comparison with normal pancreas, Northern blot analysis demonstrated a 2.5-fold increase of Bak messenger RNA expression in the tumor samples (P <0. 001). Elevated levels were found in 15 of the 26 pancreatic cancer tissue specimens. In these samples Bak expression was increased 4.3 fold (P <0.001). No association was detected between Bak expression and tumor stage. In situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry revealed that the tumor cells themselves and the stroma cells expressed only low levels of Bak. In contrast, in regions adjacent to the tumor, which showed chronic inflammation, there was always high expression in the acinar and inflammatory cells, explaining the increased Bak levels found in the tumor samples by means of Northern blot analysis. In the normal pancreas the expression of Bak was generally moderate in the acinar cells and low in the ductal and islet cells. In situ analysis using the terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase method further showed that there was extensive cell death in the peritumorous areas with chronic inflammation. Taken together, these results suggest that in pancreatic cancer Bak expression and programmed cell death are present in cells that are localized in regions of chronic inflammation surrounding the pancreatic cancer cells but not in the tumor cells themselves, a situation that may facilitate tumor growth and spread.