BACKGROUND: CI-994, an oral histone deacetylase inhibitor, has antineoplastic activity and synergism with gemcitabine preclinically. This randomized phase II trial explored whether CI-994 plus gemcitabine improves overall survival, objective response, duration of response, time to treatment failure and change in quality of life (QoL) or pain compared with gemcitabine alone. PATIENTS AND METHODS: A total of 174 patients received CG (CI-994 6 mg/m(2)/day days 1-21 plus gemcitabine 1000 mg/m(2) days 1, 8 and 15 each 28-day cycle) or PG (placebo plus gemcitabine 1000 mg/m(2) days 1, 8 and 15 of each 28-day cycle days 1-21). RESULTS: Median survival was 194 days (CG) versus 214 days (PG) (P = 0.908). The objective response rate with CG was 12% versus 14% with PG when investigator-assessed and 1% versus 6%, respectively, when assessed centrally. Time to treatment failure did not differ between the two arms (P = 0.304). QoL scores at 2 months were worse with CG than with PG. Pain response rates were similar between the two groups. There was an increased incidence of neutropenia and thrombocytopenia with CG. CONCLUSIONS: Adding CI-994 to gemcitabine in advanced pancreatic carcinoma does not improve overall survival, response rate or time to progression; CG produced decreased QoL and increased hematological toxicity and appears inferior to single-agent gemcitabine.