Metallothioneins are a family of intracellular metalloproteins that have been thought to be involved in anticancer drug resistance. However, the role of metallothioneins in pancreatic cancer has not been investigated in detail. The immunohistochemical localization of metallothionein was examined in normal human adult pancreas tissue and in 75 pancreatic duct cell carcinomas, using monoclonal anti-metallothionein antibody. Furthermore, in vitro studies on the sensitivity of pancreatic cancer to cisplatin were performed in 10 cases of pancreatic carcinoma. Metallothionein staining was weakly positive in the acinar and islet cells and intralobular ducts but was negative in the large pancreatic ducts. In pancreatic carcinomas, metallothionein staining was diffusely positive in 6 (8%), focally positive in 25 (33%) and negative in 44 (59%) of the 75 pancreatic carcinomas. The expression of metallothioneins in pancreatic tumors was related to metastasis, poor prognosis and poor histological grading (poorer glandular differentiation and nuclear anaplasia). The in vitro study of tumor sensitivity to cisplatin showed no significant correlation between metallothionein expression and resistance to cisplatin. Metallothionein-positive pancreatic carcinoma will be potentially highly malignant or acquire an enhanced ability to produce metallothioneins as the malignant potential increases. The expression of metallothionein could be a prognostic indicator in pancreatic carcinomas.