There is no established second-line treatment for advanced pancreatic cancer after gemcitabine failure. In view of the urgent need for such therapy, and since preclinical and phase I clinical data suggest an encouraging, potentially synergistic activity between raltitrexed and irinotecan, the present randomised phase II study was initiated. A total of 38 patients with metastatic pancreatic adenocarcinoma, who progressed while receiving or within 6 months after discontinuation of palliative first-line chemotherapy with gemcitabine, were enrolled in this study. They were randomised to 3-weekly courses of raltitrexed 3 mg x m(-2) on day 1 (arm A) or irinotecan 200 mg x m(-2) on day 1 plus raltitrexed 3 mg x m(-2) on day 2 (arm B). The primary study end point was objective response, secondary end points included progression-free survival (PFS) and overall survival (OS), as well as clinical benefit response in symptomatic patients (n=28). In the combination arm, the IRC-confirmed objective response rate was 16% (three out of 19 patients had a partial remission; 95% CI, 3-40%), which was clearly superior to that in the comparator/control arm with raltitrexed alone, in which no response was obtained. Therefore, the trial was already stopped at the first stage of accrual. Also, the secondary study end points, median PFS (2.5 vs 4.0 months), OS (4.3 vs 6.5 months), and clinical benefit response (8 vs 29%) were superior in the combination arm. The objective and subjective benefits of raltitrexed+irinotecan were not negated by severe, clinically relevant treatment-related toxicities: gastrointestinal symptoms (42 vs 68%), partial alopecia (0 vs 42%), and cholinergic syndrome (0 vs 21%) were more commonly noted in arm B; however, grade 3 adverse events occurred in only three patients in both treatment groups. Our data indicate that combined raltitrexed+irinotecan seems to be an effective salvage regimen in patients with gemcitabine-pretreated pancreatic cancer. The superior response activity, PFS and OS (when compared to raltitrexed), as well as its tolerability and ease of administration suggest that future trials with this combination are warranted.