The present studies were done to evaluate the therapeutic potential of several antioxidants and free radical scavengers in three different models of acute pancreatitis. (a) Edematous pancreatitis with acinar cells necrosis was induced by seven hourly intraperitoneal injections of 50 micrograms of caerulein per kg in mice. (b) Hemorrhagic pancreatitis was induced by feeding a choline-deficient, ethionine-supplemented (CDE) diet in mice. (c) Hemorrhagic pancreatitis was induced by retrograde infusion of 0.6 ml of 5% sodium taurocholate into the pancreatic duct in rats. The following antioxidants and free radical scavengers were given at various doses intravenously, subcutaneously, or intraperitoneally before the onset of pancreatitis: Ebselen [2-phenyl-1,2-benzisoselenazol-3(2H)-one], superoxide dismutase, catalase, deferoxamine (Desferal), dimethyl sulfoxide, or allopurinol. The severity of pancreatitis was assessed at various times after its onset by determination of serum amylase and pancreatic weight (edema), by grading of histological alterations, and by determination of survival (survival determined in models of hemorrhagic pancreatitis). In general, free radical scavengers and antioxidants ameliorated edema and inflammation to a greater degree than necrosis and the increase in serum amylase. Superoxide dismutase (as did Ebselen in previous studies) exerted beneficial effects on survival in diet-induced pancreatitis in the absence of marked effects on pancreatic necrosis, suggesting that these beneficial effects are due to amelioration of extrapancreatic complications that often contribute to mortality in acute pancreatitis. None of the antioxidants had major beneficial effects in taurocholate-induced hemorrhagic pancreatitis. Thus, formation of free radicals may be important for progression and outcome in diet-induced and, to a lesser degree, in caerulein-induced pancreatitis but not at all in taurocholate-induced pancreatitis. Different models of pancreatitis may, therefore, involve different degrees and mechanisms of free radical formation. Despite the amelioration of edema and the beneficial effects on mortality seen for some antioxidants in some of the models, antioxidants and free radical scavengers appear to have only a limited potential for treatment of acute pancreatitis.