The in vitro release of matrix-degrading proteinases from breast cancer cells is associated in part with shed membrane vesicles. To determine whether shed vesicles might play a similar role in ovarian cancer cells, we analyzed the shedding phenomenon in vivo and in vitro as well as the enzymatic content of their vesicles. This is the first time that an immunoelectron microscopical analysis revealed membrane vesicles carrying tumor-associated antigen alpha-Folate Receptor (alpha-FR), circulating in biological fluids (ascites and serum) of an ovarian carcinoma patient. These vesicles were trapped in a fiber network with characteristic fibrin periodicity. An ovarian cancer cell line (CABA I) established from ascitic fluid cells of this patient, grew in Matrigel and formed tubular structures suggesting invasive capability. Immunofluorescence analysis demonstrated strong cytoplasmic staining of CABA I cells with anti-matrix metalloproteinase-9 (MMP-9) and anti-urokinase-type plasminogen activator (uPA) antibodies. CABA I cells shed membrane vesicles, which were morphologically similar to those identified in vivo, as determined by electron microscopy. Gelatin zymography of vesicles isolated both in vivo and in vitro revealed major gelatinolytic bands of the MMP family, identified as the zymogen and active forms of gelatinase B (MMP-9) and gelatinase A (MMP-2). By casein-plasminogen zymography we observed high-molecular weight (HMW)-uPA and plasmin bands. Incubation of purified vesicles from CABA I cells with Matrigel led to cleavage of Matrigel components. Taken together, our results point to a possible role of shed vesicles, both in vivo and in vitro, in proteolysis that mediates invasion and spread of ovarian epithelial carcinoma cells.