Differential diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and chronic pancreatitis is sometimes difficult and cytological examination of brushings or aspirated material collected during endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) remains disappointing. As point mutations in codon 12 of the c-Ki-ras 2 gene are found in most pancreatic adenocarcinoma and not in chronic pancreatitis, this study analysed prospectively the presence of these mutations in brushing samples collected during ERCP in 45 patients (26 males, 19 females) showing a dominant stricture of the main pancreatic duct at pancreatography: 24 with pancreatic adenocarcinoma, 16 with chronic pancreatitis, and five intraductal mucin hypersecreting neoplasms. Twenty of 45 patients presented equivocal ERCP findings that did not permit a definite diagnosis. Ki-ras mutations at codon 12 were detected using a rapid and sensitive method based on polymerase chain reaction mediated restriction fragment length polymorphism analysis and confirmed by direct sequencing of polymerase chain reaction products. Results were compared with those provided by routine brush cytology. A definitive diagnosis was established for each patient. Mutations were detected in 20 of 24 patients with pancreatic adenocarcinoma (83%), but in none of the chronic pancreatitis patients and intraductal mucin hypersecreting neoplasms, irrespective of their location. By contrast, only 13 of 24 pancreatic adenocarcinoma (54%) were detected by conventional cytological examination, which yielded four false negative and seven non-contributive results. Sensitivity, specificity, and accuracy of molecular biological and cytological methods were 83%-76%, 100-83%, and 90%-58%, respectively. Notably the mutations could be detected in six patients with small tumour size (< or = 2 cm). In conclusion, Ki-ras analysis performed on pancreatic brushing samples is an efficient procedure, more accurate than cytology in the diagnosis of pancreatic adenocarcinoma, and highly specific in the differentiation between neoplastic and chronic inflammatory ductal changes, especially in patients showing inconclusive ERCP findings.