Stem cell factor (SCF) and its receptor c-kit take part in the regulation of developmental processes of mast cells, hematopoietic stem cells, and melanocytes, as well as in the growth control of human malignancies. To explore the possible role of the SCF-c-kit system and of mast cells in pancreatic cancer, the concomitant expression and distribution of the two molecules were examined in 17 normal and 26 cancerous human pancreatic tissues and in 6 cultured pancreatic cancer cell lines. Mast cell distribution was also evaluated in the same tissue samples. In addition, the effects of SCF and of the c-kit tyrosine-kinase inhibitor STI571 on the growth of the cancer cell lines and of the normal pancreatic ductal cell line TAKA-1 were assessed. SCF immunoreactivity was absent in acinar, ductal, and islet cells of the normal pancreas and faint in pancreatic cancer tissues and cell lines. In contrast, c-kit was clearly present in some normal and hyperplastic ducts of the normal pancreas, in the cancer cells of 73% of the tumor samples, and in all the cell lines tested. Mast cells, identified by tryptase and chymase immunostaining on consecutive tissue sections, showed immunoreactivity for SCF and c-kit in both normal and cancerous specimens and their number was significantly increased (p = 0.03) in pancreatic cancer compared with the normal pancreas. SCF showed a dose-dependent growth inhibitory effect on TAKA-1 cells (p < 0.001), whereas pancreatic cancer cells were resistant to the SCF-induced growth inhibition. Nonetheless, the growth of TAKA-1 cells and pancreatic cancer cells was inhibited by the c-kit tyrosine kinase inhibitor STI571. In conclusion, the SCF-c-kit system, possibly with the contribution of mast cells, may have a growth-regulating role in the normal pancreas, which is altered during malignant transformation.