Epithelial cadherin (E-cadherin) is a Ca(2+)-dependent cell-cell adhesion molecule that connects cells via homotypic interactions. Its function is critical in the induction and maintenance of cell polarity and differentiation, and its loss of downregulation is associated with an invasive and poorly differentiated phenotype in colon and other tumors. We have used an avidin-biotin immunoperoxidase technique to localize E-cadherin in microwave-treated, paraffin-embedded sections from 36 patients with pancreatic adenocarcinomas. E-cadherin was expressed by normal ductal and acinar cells with typical membranous staining at the intercellular junctions. Loss of normal surface E-cadherin expression was found in 19/36 (53 per cent) tumours compared to the adjacent normal ductal cells. Abnormal E-cadherin expression was found more frequently in poorly differentiated (grade III) (6/7, 86 per cent) than in well-differentiated tumors (grade I) (4/14, 28 per cent) (P = 0.012). Membranous E-cadherin expression was also lost more frequently in primary tumours with lymph node (stage III) (14/23, 61 per cent) and distant metastasis (stage IV) (2/2, 100 per cent) compared with 3/11 (27 per cent) lymph node-negative tumours (stage I) (P = 0.043). In conclusions, our data indicate that loss of membranous E-cadherin expression is associated with high grade and advanced stage in pancreatic cancer.