To study the expression of MHC Class II subregion gene products on biliary epithelial cells in primary biliary cirrhosis, frozen sections from liver biopsies of 15 patients with primary biliary cirrhosis were studied immunohistochemically using HLA-D subregion specific monoclonal antibodies L243 (HLA-DR), Leu10 (HLA-DQ) and B7/21 (HLA-DP). Patients with early stages of primary biliary cirrhosis showed expression of HLA-DP, HLA-DR and HLA-DQ subregion gene products on bile duct epithelial cells. In advanced stages of disease, no MHC Class II antigens or only HLA-DR and HLA-DP were expressed on bile duct cells. While normal hepatocytes did not express detectable amounts of MHC Class II antigens, hepatocytes from liver biopsies of four patients with primary biliary cirrhosis showed a distinct staining exclusively with monoclonal antibodies specific for HLA-DR. The expression of MHC Class II antigens on parenchymal cells was independent of a lymphocytic infiltration into the tissue. This study demonstrates that bile ductular cells, but not hepatocytes, express a full set of MHC Class II molecules at least during the early stages of primary biliary cirrhosis. We propose, therefore, that the expression of both HLA-DR and HLA-DQ subregion products on bile duct epithelial cells may be a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for the initiation of an autoimmune process leading to the destruction of intrahepatic bile ducts in primary biliary cirrhosis.