Abstract The intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1), a membrane glycoprotein, is important in the adhesion of cytokine-stimulated leukocytes to the endothelium of microvessels and their trans endothelial migration. Circulating isoforms of ICAM-1 (cICAM-1) are known to be elevated in human serum as an indirect consequence of inflammatory responses. The aim of this study was to investigate whether cICAM-1 levels are elevated in patients with acute pancreatitis within 48 h of the onset of abdominal pain and whether cICAM-1 levels correlate with the severity of the tissue damage. Twenty-five consecutive patients admitted to a medical ICU had elevated cCAM-1 concentrations of 548 ± 68 ng/ ml, significantly different when compared to a control group of 18 healthy subjects (343 ± 29; p = 0.018). According to the findings of contrast-enhanced CT or laparotomy patients were further divided in a group with acute edematous pancreatitis and a group with acute necrotizing pancreatitis. Pancreatic necrosis was associated with cICAM-1 levels of 729 ± 106 ng/ml, significantly different from patients with mild disease (367 ± 48) and controls (p < 0.001). Plasma cICAM-1 levels were not significantly different between healthy subjects and patients with mild pancreatitis. A significant correlation was found between cICAM-1 and C-reactive protein, an acute phase reactant and marker of necrotizing pancreatitis (r = 0.62; p < 0.01). The sensitivity and specificity for the detection of edematous or necrotizing pancreatitis of cICAM-1 plasma concentrations (cutoff point at 500 ng/ml) were 75 % and 85 %, respectively. These results suggest an enhanced release of ICAM-1 into plasma in the early stage of acute necrotizing pancreatitis. Leukocyte-endothelial cell adhesion may be associated with the inflammatory process of necrotizing tissue damage in acute pancreatitis. It could thus serve as a marker or predictor of a severe clinical course of pancreatitis.