MMP-8 (collagenase-2) is the most effective collagenase to initiate type I collagen degradation. Since initiation of lysis of the surrounding collagen matrix is an essential prerequisite for carcinoma cells to spread, this study investigated the expression of MMP-8 in squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the head and neck in vivo and in vitro. Most of the recently established head and neck carcinoma cell lines (22/25), corresponding tumour (5/7) and dermal (2/2) fibroblasts, commercial tongue carcinoma (HSC-3 and SCC-25), and transformed keratinocyte cell lines of the tongue (IHGK) and skin (HaCaT) expressed MMP-8 mRNA analysed by the PCR method. Western blotting revealed a latent 50 kD band in concentrated culture media of carcinoma cells and corresponding tumour and dermal fibroblasts. The expression of immunoreactive MMP-8 protein was reduced 30% by transforming growth factor beta-1 (TGF-beta1) at 1 ng/ml concentration and 60% at 10 ng/ml concentration, but up-regulated 2- and 2.5-fold after 10 nM and 100 nM phorbol 12-myristate 13 acetate (PMA), respectively. Immunohistological staining localized MMP-8 protein in a few malignant invading tumour cell islands, certain fibroblasts, polymorphonuclear neutrophils (PMNs), and plasma cells. In situ hybridization revealed a faint sporadic signal in carcinoma cells of all eight tissue sections analysed. It is concluded that tissue from head and neck carcinomas can express MMP-8 both in vivo and in vitro. Since the amount of MMP-8 in carcinoma and stromal cells is rather low, MMP-8 may have a potential role, with other collagenases, in the proteolysis of connective tissue associated with the spreading of invasive carcinoma.