Matriptase and its cognate, Kunitz-type serine protease inhibitor, HAI-1, comprise a newly characterized extracellular matrix-degrading protease system that may function as an epithelial membrane activator for other proteases and latent growth factors. Both enzyme and inhibitor have been detected in breast cancer cells, immortalized mammary epithelial cells, and human milk, but not in cultured fibroblasts nor in fibrosarcoma cells. To test the hypothesis that this system is expressed by normal breast epithelium, invasive breast cancers, and other cancers of an epithelial origin (carcinomas) but not in cancers of a mesenchymal origin, we have expanded our expression analysis of matriptase and HAI-1 in vitro and in vivo. Matriptase and HAI-1 were detected at the protein and mRNA levels both in hormone-dependent and hormone-independent cultured breast cancer cells, and this expression correlated with the expression of the epithelial markers E-cadherin or ZO-1. However, none of the breast cancer cell lines tested that express the mesenchymal marker vimentin express matriptase or HAI-1, consistent with an epithelial-selective expression of this system. Expression of matriptase, as determined by Western blot analysis, was observed in primary human breast, gynecological, and colon carcinomas, but not in stromal-derived ovarian tumors and human sarcomas of various origins and histological grades. The epithelial-selective expression of matriptase and HAI-1 was further confirmed in human breast cancers by immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridization, where the expression of the protease and the inhibitor were found in the carcinoma cells and in surrounding normal breast epithelia. The expression of the matriptase/HAI-1 system by malignant epithelial cells in vivo suggests a possible role for this protease in multiple aspects of the pathophysiology of epithelial malignancy, including invasion and metastasis.