The aim of the present study was to define the role of cathepsins B, H, K, L and S in the pathogenesis of human chondrosarcomas. For this purpose 40 tumour samples obtained from 12 patients with the diagnosis of conventional chondrosarcoma were systematically investigated for the expression of cathepsin mRNAs by Northern hybridisation, and for immunohistochemical localisation of the proteins. Northern analysis demonstrated the highest levels of cathepsins B and L in a recurring grade 1 chondrosarcoma, and in a grade 3 chondrosarcoma and in fibrous histiocytomas. Increased expression of cathepsin K mRNA was seen in seven chondrosarcomas, as well as in control tumours; fibrous histiocytomas, osteosarcomas, enchondromas and a giant cell tumour of bone. Cathepsin L was immunolocalised within the large chondrocytes, while cathepsin K was predominantly localised in large multinucleated osteoclastic cells and in some hypertrophic chondrocytes. These results suggest that chondrosarcoma can be included in the growing list of tumours, where cathepsins may well be involved in tumour progression. The simultaneous upregulation of cathepsins B and L, together with matrix metalloproteinase-13, and the association of cathepsin K with negative prognostic parameters suggests that an aggressive biological behaviour of chondrosarcoma may be related to the synthesis of cysteine proteinases and activation of other proteolytic enzymes. If this turns out to be the case, cathepsin inhibitors could provide the much needed adjuvant therapy for chondrosarcomas.