To compare in vivo insulin action in patients with diabetes secondary to pancreatic diseases (n = 9) to that in type I diabetic patients (n = 13) and in normal subjects (n = 8), we measured insulin-mediated glucose disposal by the euglycemic insulin clamp technique. Five of the nine patients with pancreatogenic diabetes had undergone total pancreatectomy. Similar plasma glucose (approximately 4.8 mmol/l) and insulin (approximately 70 mU/l) levels were maintained in all groups. The rate of glucose metabolism in the pancreatogenic diabetic patients (3.77 +/- 0.55 mg/kg/min) was 47% lower (P less than 0.001) than in normal subjects (7.05 +/- 0.57 mg/kg/min) and 21% lower (P less than 0.05) than in type I diabetic patients (5.54 +/- 0.39 mg/kg/min). The rates of glucose uptake were similarly reduced in totally pancreatectomized patients and in those with pancreatogenic diabetes due to other causes. During hyperinsulinemia induced by the clamp, glucose production (measured using 3-3H-glucose infusion) was completely suppressed in both the pancreatogenic diabetic patients and the normal subjects indicating that the impairment of in vivo insulin action was localized to the peripheral tissues. However, basal glucose production was elevated in the pancreatogenic diabetic patients (2.75 mg/kg/min, P less than 0.001) compared to the normal subjects (1.79 +/- 0.07 mg/kg/min). Glucose production rates were comparable in the totally pancreatectomized patients and in the other patients with pancreatogenic diabetes. The fasting plasma insulin level was, however, lower in the totally pancreatectomized (3.2 +/- 1.6 mU/L, P less than 0.05) than the other pancreatogenic (11.5 +/- 3.7 mU/L) diabetic patients. To examine the mechanisms of peripheral insulin resistance in the pancreatogenic diabetic patients, insulin binding and action were measured in isolated adipocytes. The pancreatogenic diabetic patients displayed normal insulin binding as well as normal rates of glucose transport and oxidation in adipocytes. In conclusion, patients with pancreatogenic diabetes demonstrated marked insulin resistance. Thus, impaired regulation of glucose production is a more likely explanation for the special clinical features of pancreatogenic diabetes than enhanced glucose utilization.