We explored APC gene mutations and chromosome 5q21 allelic losses (5qLOH) in 18 neoplasms of the papilla of Vater, including 6 early-stage tumours (3 adenomas, 3 carcinomas) and 12 advanced-stage cancers. Eleven PCR-amplified polymorphic sequences were used to analyse 5qLOH. APC mutations were investigated both by an in vitro APC-protein truncation test and by single-strand conformation polymorphism analysis. Mutations in the Ki-ras, N-ras and p53 genes were also assessed. We found: 5qLOH in 8 of 16 cases (50%), including 1 adenoma, 3 early- and 4 advanced-stage cancers; APC mutations in 2 adenomas and 1 advanced-stage carcinoma; Ki- or N-ras mutations in 3 adenomas and 3 advanced-stage cancers; p53 mutations in 2 early-stage and 7 advanced-stage adenocarcinomas. Our results suggest that 5qLOH, APC mutations and ras mutations are present at early stages, whereas p53 inactivation is associated with progression of malignancy in a large proportion of cases. These data indicate that sporadic ampullary tumours differ from those occurring in familial adenomatous polyposis in the frequency (17% vs. 64%) as well as in the site of APC somatic mutations, suggesting a different molecular pathogenesis in the 2 conditions.