Increased mortality of patients with oral cancer largely reflects the local and regional spread of the disease. The invasiveness of these tumours requires hydrolases which are regulated through AP-1-dependent transcriptional mechanisms. Since the amount/activity of transcription factors bound to the AP-1 motif are regulated partly through the extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERK1/ERK2), we determined the effect of PD 098059, an inhibitor of ERK1/ERK2 activation, on the in vivo invasiveness of a human squamous cell carcinoma cell line (UM-SCC-1) derived from the oral cavity. We utilized the floor of mouth musculature consisting of the mylohyoid, geniohyoid and genioglossus muscle (which are sequentially arranged), as a natural barrier to assess tumour spread in vivo in the nude mouse. Mice were inoculated with tumour cells superficial to the mylohyoid muscle. After 18 days, tumours were injected with either empty liposomes (control) or liposomes containing 5 microM PD 098059 and, after an additional 22 days, the jaws of mice examined histologically. Highly infiltrative tumours, which had penetrated the genioglossus muscle, were evident in 10/12 control mice. In contrast, in 9/12 mice in which the tumours were injected with PD 098059, tumours did not extend beyond the mylohyoid or geniohyoid muscles. Tumours penetrated bone nutrient canals in 7/12 control mice but in only 3/12 PD 098059-treated mice. Neurotropism, characteristic of aggressive oral squamous cell carcinoma, was evident in 6/12 control mice but was completely abolished (0/12 mice) in the PD 098059-treated mice. Using a staging system based on the muscle layer involved, neurotropism, as well as bone involvement, we found the inhibition of invasion to be statistically significant (P < 0.01). The reduced invasiveness of the PD 098059-liposome-treated oral cancers was associated with diminished 92-kDa type IV collagenase and ERK1/ERK2 activities but was not a consequence of a slower tumour growth rate. This is the first study to demonstrate reduced in vivo invasiveness of a malignancy brought about by an inhibitor of ERK1/ERK2 activation. These results raise the exciting possibility that second generation PD 098059 congeners may reduce the spread of the disease in patients afflicted with oral cancers.