The aim of this study was to determine the expression of proteinases and inhibitors from the matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) (MMPs 1, 2, 3, 9, tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases (TIMPs) 1, 2) and plasminogen activator ((PA) urokinase (uPA), tissue type (tPA), uPAR, plasminogen activator inhibitors (PAIs) 1, 2) systems in colorectal cancer pathology by gelatin zymography, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISAs) and quenched fluorescent substrate hydrolysis. The levels of all studied MMPs, uPA, uPAR, TIMP-1 and PAIs were significantly greater in tumour tissues than normal tissues. However, tPA and TIMP-2 were greater in normal colon (P<0.05, Mann-Whitney) e.g. PAI-1: tumour, median 14.9 (range 0.2-80.2) ng/mg total protein; normal, 2.1 (0.1-65.0). Tumour levels of several factors, in particular MMP-1 and PAI-1, correlated with pathology, i.e. Dukes' stage, differentiation, lymphatic or vascular invasion and tumour depth. The interactions between proteinase systems in colorectal cancer are complex and the balance between active proteinases and their inhibitors is important for extracellular matrix (ECM) degradation/remodelling at each stage of the metastatic cascade.