A double-blind, double-dummy, crossover study compared oral controlled-release morphine sulfate (MS Contin tablets [MSC], Purdue Frederick, Norwalk, CT) every 12 hours, and immediate-release morphine sulfate (IRMS) tablets, every 4 hours, in 14 evaluable patients with chronic cancer pain. The test model described showed assay sensitivity for steady-state analgesia, requiring relatively few subjects to yield statistical significance in pharmacologic potency estimates. Initial doses were the calculated equivalents of about one third the previous opioid requirements or at least 30 mg MSC every 12 hours or 15 mg IRMS every 4 hours. This was generally subtherapeutic; hence, additional IRMS was available for break-through pain. Doses of MSC and IRMS were titrated upwards until the requirement for rescue IRMS was less than 20% of the total daily amount of morphine. In both study phases, the total dose of morphine increased significantly from the first day to the last, on which it was significantly (34%) higher for IRMS than MSC. Pain was significantly less intense and frequent in the last 24 hours of each treatment arm than in the first, and equally well controlled by both regimens. The two treatments were equipotent in a pharmacologic assay using dosages and pain scores. The requirement for rescue analgesia was similarly comparable for both treatments, decreasing significantly with upward dose titration. The few side effects experienced (one with MSC and three with IRMS) did not include serious reactions such as respiratory depression. It is concluded that MSC, 12-hourly, controls cancer pain as effectively and safely as IRMS on a 4-hour schedule. MS Contin exhibits a 12-hour duration of action as previously shown in other well-controlled trials. A problem of pain exacerbation at the start of each study phase was found to be associated with the design of this study. It may be resolved with a higher initial study dose and/or use of a patient-controlled analgesia device for parenteral rescue doses.