The presence of antimitochondrial antibodies (AMA) is a major criterion for the diagnosis of primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC). Although it is not clear that AMA are involved in the pathogenesis of the disease, the study of these autoantibodies has enabled much information to be accumulated about the specificity of this response. The autoantigens have been identified as components of a functionally related enzyme family, the 2-oxo-acid-dehydrogenase complex. Within this complex, pyruvate dehydrogenase E2 subunit (PDC-E2) has been determined to be the immunodominant autoantigen. Using a panel of mouse monoclonal antibodies and human combinatorial autoantibodies, it has been demonstrated that patients with PBC, but not controls, have an abnormal expression of either PDC-E2 or a cross-reacting molecule in the apical region of biliary epithelium. Others have shown a similar reaction using rabbit sera directed to PDC-E2. Our previous studies have concentrated on AMA-positive patients. In this study, the presence of PDC-E2, class II, immunoglobulin (Ig) A, and B7/BB1 in the bile duct epithelial cells of AMA-positive as well as AMA-negative patients is addressed. Most patients with AMA-negative PBC (seven of nine) react in a fashion similar to AMA-positive patients with intense staining of the apical region of the bile duct epithelial cells for "PDC-E2," increased IgA expression, and little major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II staining in the early-stage patients. Interestingly, the two AMA-negative patients that did not express PDC-E2 on the apical side of their biliary epithelium had anticentromere antibodies and Sjögren's syndrome. Based on these data, it can be concluded that the disease process for both AMA-positive and AMA-negative patients with PBC has a similar pathogenic mechanism, which is likely to involve the abnormal expression of PDC-E2 or a molecular mimic of PDC-E2, and does not require MHC class II expression.