Since proteolysis of the dermal collagenous matrix and basement membranes is required for local invasive growth and early metastasis formation of cutaneous melanomas, we have analysed the activities/expression levels of certain metalloproteinases in melanomas and cultured melanoma cells by in situ hybridization and Northern analysis. In addition to collagenases-1 and -3 that have been implicated in invasive growth behaviour of various malignant tumours, we analysed the levels of 72-kDa gelatinase and its activators MT1-MMP and TIMP-2 in cultured melanoma cells. The lesions examined included three cases of lentigo maligna and 28 cases of Clark grade I-V melanomas. The premalignant as well as the grade I tumours were consistently negative for collagenase-1 and -3 and TIMP-1 and -3. The collagenases were predominantly expressed in the cancer cells of Clark grade III and IV tumours. TIMP-1 and -3 were abundantly expressed in the cancer and/or stromal cells of grade III and IV melanomas, while TIMP-2 protein was detected also in melanomas representing lower invasive potential. Northern analysis of seven melanoma cell lines showed that the expression of collagenase-1 and TIMPs-1 and -3 was associated with 72-kDa gelatinase positivity. All melanoma cell lines were positive for MT1-MMP and TIMP-2 mRNAs. Our results suggest that overexpression of collagenases-1 and -3 and TIMPs-1 and -3 is induced during melanoma progression. Expression of TIMPs may reflect host response to tumour invasion in an effort to control MMP activity and preserve extracellular matrix integrity.