We examined whether human pancreatic ductal cancer cells express and secrete pancreatic cationic trypsinogen in vitro which can be spontaneously converted into active trypsin at acidic pH (pH 4.5-5. 5), in contrast to anionic trypsinogen. Cationic trypsinogen expression at the mRNA level was observed in differentiated Capan-1 and BxPC-3 cell lines. However, expression was not detected in either poorly-differentiated Panc-1 or undifferentiated MIAPaCa-2 cell line. The gelatinolytic activity of the activated form of trypsinogen in each conditioned medium in the presence of enterokinase (1.0 microg/ml) (a band with a molecular weight of approximately 23 kDa) corresponded well to the level of cationic trypsinogen mRNA. The spontaneous activation of trypsinogen also was observed by gelatin zymography of the acid-loaded conditioned medium (pH 5.5). These findings suggest that trypsinogen produced by human pancreatic ductal cancer has the characteristics of spontaneous activation and gelatinolytic activity in the presence of proton.