Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) carries the most dismal prognosis of all solid tumours. Both the late clinical presentation of patients, due to lack of early symptoms, as well as the rapid and aggressive course of the disease contribute to the extremely high mortality of this malignancy. Recently, a multistep progression model for PDAC integrating morphological, clinical and molecular evidence has been proposed. Putative precursor lesions, termed pancreatic intraepithelial neoplasia (PanIN), are classified into three different grades (PanIN-1 through -3) based on the degree of cellular atypia they display. We have conducted large-scale expression profiling analyses of microdissected cells from normal pancreatic ducts, PanINs of different grades and PDACs using whole-genome oligonucleotide microarrays. Verification of hybridisation results for selected genes was performed using quantitative real-time PCR and immunohistochemical analyses on PanIN tissue microarrays. Comparison of the expression profiles demonstrated that the greatest changes in gene expression occur between PanIN stages 1B and 2, suggesting that PanIN-2 may represent the first truly preneoplastic stage in PDAC progression. Our results identify a large number of potential target genes for the development of novel molecular diagnostic and therapeutic tools for the prevention and early diagnosis of PDAC and provide novel insights into the pathophysiological mechanisms involved in tumour progression in the pancreas.