Recent experimental work has suggested that oxygen-derived free radicals may play an important role in initiating the early capillary injury in acute pancreatitis. Data from models of ischemic injury in other organs have suggested the enzyme xanthine oxidase is important in generating oxygen-derived free radicals. The present study was performed to determine whether xanthine oxidase is the source of free radical production in experimental pancreatitis. Utilizing the isolated, perfused, ex vivo canine pancreas preparation, three models of pancreatitis were initiated with (1) free fatty acid infusion (FFA), (2) partial duct obstruction and secretin stimulation (POSS), and (3) ischemia (ISCH). In each model, during a 4-hour perfusion, edema developed, weight gain occurred (FFA 120.6 +/- 21.1 gm; POSS 44.5 +/- 6.9 gm; ISCH 63.3 +/- 14.0 gm), and the serum amylase became elevated (FFA 1827 +/- 397 u/dl; POSS 10,171 +/- 1487 u/dl; ISCH 1860 +/- 365 u/dl). When the xanthine oxidase enzyme inhibitor allopurinol was added to the perfusate prior to the 4-hour perfusion, edema formation was absent or minimal, weight gain was significantly less (FFA 15.2 +/- 2.5 gm p less than 0.05; POSS 8.8 +/- 2.7 gm p less than 0.001; ISCH 12.3 +/- 2.8 gm p less than 0.01), and the amylase remained normal or the elevation was significantly decreased (FFA 996 +/- 189 u/dl p less than 0.05; POSS 3021 +/- 1074 u/dl p less than 0.001; ISCH 993 +/- 214 u/dl p less than 0.002). These data confirm that oxygen-derived free radicals play an important role in the pathogenesis of experimental acute pancreatitis, and suggest that the enzyme xanthine oxidase may well be the source of their production.