The hypothesis of the present work was that the pannus tissue overlying the articular hard tissues has an aggressive phenotype and contains the newly discovered collagenase-3 and its endogenous inducers and activators. We therefore analyzed the eventual presence of collagenase-3 and its regulation at the pannus-cartilage junction. Collagenase-3 mRNA (in situ hybridization) and enzyme protein (ABC and immunofluorescence staining) were found in the pannocytes in the pannus-hard tissue junction. Inflammatory round cells associated with the critical interface contained TNF-alpha and IL-1beta. These cytokines induced collagenase-3 secretion in cultured rheumatoid synovial fibroblasts. Procollagenase-3 activators, stromelysin-1, 72 kDa type IV collagenase/gelatinase and membrane-type 1-MMP, were also found in the pannus-hard tissue junction. Active collagenase-3 was inhibited with alendronate (IC50 = 500-750 microM). Collagenase-3, due to its substrate profile and local synthesis in a milieu favoring its activation, might play a major role in the degradation of cartilage type II and bone type I collagens. Alendronate, at concentrations attainable in vivo, is able to inhibit collagenase-3. This might offer an option to control collagenase-3-mediated tissue destruction in rheumatoid arthritis.