The 72-kd type IV collagenase is a member of the collagenase enzyme family that has been closely linked with the invasive phenotype of cancer cells. Previous studies have shown that both normal cells and highly invasive tumor cells produce the 72-kd type IV procollagenase enzyme in a complexed form consisting of the proenzyme and a novel tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases, TIMP-2. The balance between activated enzyme and available inhibitor is thought to be a critical determinant of the matrix proteolysis associated with a variety of pathologic processes, including tumor cell invasion. In the present study, we demonstrate that alteration of the metalloproteinase-metalloproteinase-inhibitor balance in favor of excess inhibitor blocks human fibrosarcoma HT-1080 tumor cell invasion of a reconstituted basement membrane. The HT-1080 cell line produces both the 72-kd and the 92-kd type IV collagenases. Alteration of the type IV collagenase-inhibitor balance was achieved by addition of free TIMP-2 or antibodies to 72-kd type IV collagenase. Native, purified TIMP-2 was inhibitory in the range of 1-25 micrograms/mL. Addition of specific antiserum against the 72-kd type IV collagenase, which did not cross-react with the 92-kd type IV collagenase, inhibited HT-1080 cell invasion to the same extent. These results suggest that metalloproteinases, in particular the 72-kd type IV collagenase, are critical for tumor cell invasion of the reconstituted basement membrane. Our findings demonstrate that addition of the endogenous inhibitor TIMP-2 is able to block invasion. Thus, we recommend initiation of in vivo studies of the therapeutic potential of TIMP-2 to block tumor cell invasion and intravasation into the circulation.