Precursor lesions are assuming greater importance in the study of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. As pancreatic cancer is almost universally fatal due to late clinical presentation and biological aggressiveness, characterisation of its precursor lesions may create scope for early diagnosis and improved outcome with conventional therapies as well as the development of novel therapeutic and preventative strategies. Pancreatic intraepithelial neoplasia (PanIN) and intraductal papillary mucinous tumours (IPMTs) are thought to be precursor lesions of ductal adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. Recent work has focused on the molecular aberrations associated with these lesions leading to the formulation of a progression model for pancreatic cancer. Progressive histopathological changes along the progression model are associated with aberrations of cell cycle regulatory and growth factor signalling molecules that occur in pancreatic cancer at high frequency and are common to many cancers. Characterisation of these molecular aberrations provides scope for the development of novel diagnostic and treatment strategies that will ultimately impact on the outcome for people who develop pancreatic cancer.