Although it is generally accepted that proteolytic degradation is an important mechanism used by malignant cells in the process of metastasis, comparatively little is known about the regulation of molecules responsible for proteolysis and how they become de-regulated during human tumour progression. Using a genetically related pair of human melanoma cell lines, derived from the same patient at different stages of disease, we analysed differences in the cytokine-mediated regulation of gelatinase B (MMP-9), an enzyme thought to play an important role in cellular invasiveness, and TIMP-1, a physiological inhibitor of this enzyme. Whereas the advanced stage (i.e. metastatic) partner of this pair (WM 239) could produce gelatinase B upon induction with interleukin (IL)-1beta or tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), the early stage (i.e. primary) partner (WM 115) could not. In sharp contrast, we found that TIMP-1 displayed an opposite pattern of induction in these cell lines. Specifically, the early stage cell line, WM 115, demonstrated a marked increase in the production of TIMP-1 when treated with IL-1beta or TNF-alpha whereas the advanced cell line, WM 239, showed no such increase. Treatment with the DNA demethylating agent, 2-deoxy-5-azacytidine, resulted in a marked up-regulation of both gelatinase B and TIMP-1 in both cell lines. It was further found that constitutive overexpression of gelatinase B in WM 239 cells and an additional melanoma cell line (MeWo), derived from a metastatic lesion, was able to greatly enhance lung colonization in an experimental metastasis assay while we did not observe differences in tumorigenicity. From these results we conclude that an altered responsiveness of gelatinase B and TIMP-1 to induction by similar agents is associated with disease progression in human melanoma and that this altered responsiveness can have consequences to the aggressive nature of the disease.