To clarify the pathophysiological role of cathepsins in rheumatoid arthritis (RA), we investigated whether cathepsin B or cathepsin L was increased in synovial fluid (SF) of RA joints, and whether the cathepsin isolated from SF of RA patients activated pro-urokinase or not. Thus, we estimated the content of cathepsins in SF of RA patients by measuring their activities by fluorospectrometry, using Z-Phe-Arg-MCA as the substrate. Cathepsin activity was approximately 4-fold higher in the SF of RA patients than in those of patients with osteoarthritis. Cathepsin B and cathepsin L were separated by cation-exchange column chromatography. As a result, a large peak corresponding to cathepsin B and a very small peak corresponding to cathepsin L were detected. Biochemical sequential fractionation of the cathepsin purified from the SF showed that the large peak was mainly composed of cathepsin B. This purified enzyme induced conversion of pro-urokinase to urokinase, and the Km for pro-urokinase was approximately 8.27 microM. These findings indicated that an imbalance between cathepsin B and its inhibitors occurred due to increased concentrations of active cathepsin B in RA articular lesions, and that cathepsin B might be related to the degradation of cartilage in RA by activating the fibrinolytic cascade.