The urokinase plasminogen activator (uPA) system has been widely associated with the development of breast carcinoma. However, the role of the urokinase pathway in the development of osseous breast cancer metastases has been largely overlooked. We studied the expression of uPA, urokinase plasminogen activator receptor (uPAR)- and plasminogen activator inhibitor type-1 (PAI-1) in human breast carcinomas and their bone metastases, using in situ hybridisation. Studies were performed using paraffin-embedded tissue from 13 ductal carcinomas, 23 invasive ductal carcinomas, five normal breasts and 25 bone metastases. The majority of the tumours examined expressed low to moderate levels of uPA mRNA and low to high levels of uPAR and PAI-1 mRNA, which was predominantly localised to the epithelial tumour cells. There was slight over-expression of uPA and PAI-1 mRNA and a marked increase in uPAR mRNA expression in the malignant tumours compared with benign tissue. Overall, uPAR and PAI-1 mRNA expression was found to be more variable than uPA mRNA, suggesting a possible role of the receptor and inhibitor in the regulation of uPA activity. Increased alpha1(I) procollagen (COL) and osteopontin (OPN) mRNA expression was detected, primarily in the stromal cells, in malignant tumours compared with the benign tissue. The increased expression of the components of the uPA system on the epithelial tumour cells may account for the activation of the proteolytic cascade that occurs during breast cancer metastasis to bone. Furthermore, the over-expression of COL and OPN suggests a possible interaction between these matrix proteins and the uPA system.