AIM: To investigate the phenotype of cells comprising diffuse and intestinal-type gastric cancers using monoclonal antibodies to two antigens. One antigen (designated D10) is characteristic of gastric mucous neck cells, cardiac glands, pyloric glands, and Brunner's glands. The second antigen (designated 17NM) is specific to the mucous vacuole of intestinal goblet cells. METHODS: Thirty two gastrectomy specimens with adenocarcinoma were studied. Serial paraffin sections were stained immunohistochemically for D10 and 17NM and histochemically for acid and neutral mucins. The cancers were classified histologically as of either diffuse or intestinal type according to Lauren. RESULTS: Of 15 diffuse-type gastric carcinomas, 11 showed the majority of cancer cells staining for D10 while four were typical signet ring cell cancers staining predominantly for 17NM; five tumours displayed both phenotypes with the two phenotypes segregated in different areas of the tumours. In contrast, of 16 intestinal-type cancers, six expressed 17NM, three D10, five neither antigen, and two expressed both antigens. One indeterminate-type cancer expressed both antigens. The staining of individual cells for D10 and 17NM was mutually exclusive in both diffuse and intestinal types. In contrast to the diffuse cancers, intestinal-type cancers typically expressed either antigen only in occasional small groups of cells and individual cells. CONCLUSIONS: In disease, the gastric stem cell can assume the capacity of the duodenal stem cell for divergent differentiation into either intestinal goblet cells (for example, as in intestinal metaplasia) or Brunner's gland cells (for example, as in pyloric gland/Brunner's gland metaplasia). With neoplastic transformation, this potential for divergent differentiation is maintained and gives rise to diffuse-type cancers that display either the D10 phenotype, the 17NM phenotype, or the clonal expression of both phenotypes. In the more cell cohesive (intestinal-type) tumours, differentiation for antigen expression is poorly developed and more frequently directed towards the intestinal goblet cell phenotype.