Apoptosis has been implicated in the pathogenesis of many diseases including various forms of liver failure. The apoptotic process is essentially regulated by intracellular proteases, called caspases, which cleave several vital proteins. Despite the rapid elucidation of apoptotic signaling cascades, however, almost no information exists about the activation of caspases in situ. In the present study, a monoclonal antibody was employed which selectively recognized cleavage site-specific fragments of the caspase substrate cytokeratin-18. We demonstrate that this antibody labeled apoptotic hepatocytes in culture and, in addition, could be used to monitor caspase activation in formalin-fixed tissue biopsies. In liver sections of different liver diseases an increased number of early apoptotic cells was detected which were not found in normal tissue. Our data reveal that hepatobiliary diseases are characterized by elevated caspase activation and apoptosis, which can be specifically detected in situ by a cleavage site-specific antibody against cytokeratin-18.