Autoantibodies reacting with human pancreatic exocrine cells were investigated by immunofluorescent techniques in 107 patients with Type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes mellitus, 20 first-degree relatives of the Type 1 diabetic patients, 347 patients with Type 2 (non-insulin-dependent) diabetes, 34 with alcoholic pancreatitis, 26 with rheumatoid arthritis and 107 normal control subjects. Both immunoblotting analysis and double-immunostaining methods were used to characterize the antigens targeted by the pancreatic exocrine cell autoantibodies. Sera positive for human pancreatic exocrine cell cytoplasm, producing a "fine fibrillar" pattern, were found in 21% (23/107) of the Type 1 diabetic patients. The autoantibodies were present in 39% (15/38) of Type 1 diabetic patients diagnosed within 3 months, and the prevalence decreased with duration of diabetes. The antibodies were of the IgM class in 87% (13/15) of recent-onset Type 1 diabetes cases, but IgG-autoantibodies became more prevalent with increasing duration of diabetes. Three out of 347 (0.9%) Type 2 diabetic patients and 4 of 20 (20%) first-degree relatives of Type 1 diabetic patients had autoantibodies targeted against pancreatic exocrine cells. None of the patients with alcoholic pancreatitis or rheumatoid arthritis and none of the control subjects had these antibodies. Immunoblotting analysis and double-immunostaining demonstrated that the autoantibodies reacted with 40 kilodalton cytokeratin in pancreatic exocrine cell cytoplasm. The antibody was absorbed by the Triton X-100-insoluble fraction of pancreatic extract. These results indicate the presence of distinct autoantibodies to pancreatic exocrine cells in Type 1 diabetes. This suggests the provocative concept that the cytoskeletal system of pancreatic exocrine cells is involved in the pathogenetic process of Type 1 diabetes.