Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is a leading cause of adult cancer mortality in the United States. Recent studies have revealed that point mutation of the K-ras oncogene is a common event in pancreatic cancer, and oncogenesis mediated by Ras may also involve activation of Rel/nuclear factor (NF)-kappa B transcription factors. Furthermore, the c-rel member of Rel/NF-kappa B transcription factor family was first identified as a cellular homologue of the v-rel oncogene, suggesting that other members of the Rel/NF-kappa B family are potentially oncogenes. We therefore investigated the possibility that Rel/NF-kappa B transcription factors are activated in pancreatic cancer. Immunohistochemical analysis, Western blot and Northern blot analysis, electrophoretic mobility shift assays, and chloramphenicol acetyltransferase assays were performed to determine RelA activity in human pancreatic adenocarcinomas and normal tissues and nontumorigenic or tumorigenic cell lines. RelA, the p65 subunit of NF-kappa B, was constitutively activated in approximately 67% (16 of 24) of pancreatic adenocarcinomas but not in normal pancreatic tissues. Constitutive RelA activity was also detected in 9 of 11 human pancreatic tumor cell lines but not in nontumorigenic Syrian golden hamster cell lines. I kappa B alpha, a previously identified NF-kappa B-inducible gene, was overexpressed in human pancreatic tumor tissues and cell lines, and RelA activation could be inhibited by curcumin and dominant-negative mutants of I kappa B alpha, raf, and MEKK1. This is the first report demonstrating constitutive activation of RelA in nonlymphoid human cancer. These data are consistent with the possibility that RelA is constitutively activated by the upstream signaling pathway involving Ras and mitogen-activated protein kinases in pancreatic tumor cells. Constitutive RelA activity may play a key role in pancreatic tumorigenesis through activation of its downstream target genes.