Collagenases are a family of metalloproteinases which may play a role in facilitating tumor cell invasion of the extracellular matrix. Tumor cells traverse two types of extracellular matrix: basement membranes and interstitial stroma, at multiple stages of the metastatic process. The matrix is a dense meshwork of collagen, proteoglycans, elastin and glycoproteins. Normally the matrix does not contain open spaces large enough for cell movement. Therefore numerous investigators have postulated that collagenolytic proteases, secreted by tumor cells or associated host cells, breakdown the extracellular matrix during tumor cell invasion. A large number of animal and human tumors have been shown to contain collagenase at a higher level than corresponding benign tissues. Separate collagenolytic metalloproteinases have been identified which degrade specific types of collagen. A basement membrane collagenolytic protease was shown to be elevated in a series of metastatic murine tumor cells. Immunologic studies using antibodies specific for collagenase have demonstrated that in vivo, tumor cells can produce collagenase. Therefore identification of collagenase in cultured lines of tumor cells is not an artifact of in vitro cultivation. In some cases, tumor cells may induce host cells to produce collagenase. The best evidence to date that collagenases actually play a role in invasion is derived from experiments in which natural collagenase inhibitors block tumor cell invasion of extracellular matrix in vitro.