Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are different conditions with contrasting airway inflammation and parenchymal disease patterns. A number of matrix metalloproteases (MMPs) are implicated in the pathophysiology of COPD and asthma. Different profiles of airway MMPs may, therefore, be expected in asthma and COPD. The present study compared MMP profiles in the airways of non-smokers, non-symptomatic cigarette smokers, and patients with COPD or asthma (n = 15 subjects per group). Induced sputum was assessed for MMP-1, -2, -3, -8 and -9, and tissue inhibitor of metalloproteases (TIMP)-1 by ELISA. Gelatinase activity was determined by zymography. Sputum from COPD patients contained increased levels of MMP-1, -8 and -9 compared with the other groups (2-7-fold, depending upon group). MMP-9 activity was elevated in COPD sputum by 3-12-fold above the other groups. Sputum from COPD patients had 3-fold higher levels of TIMP-1 than samples from asthmatics or controls, but was not different to smokers. FEV1 correlated negatively with MMP-1, -8, -9, MMP-9 activity and TIMP-1, whereas percent neutrophils in sputum correlated positively with MMP-1, -8, -9, TIMP-1 and MMP-9 activity. The MMP profile in COPD differs to that in asthma and cigarette smokers. This may contribute to, or be a marker of, different pathophysiologies of asthma and COPD.