Human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVECs) invade collagen gels and establish vascular-like structures within the gel following stimulation with phorbol esters. This process was quantitated by measuring release of radioactivity from gels composed of [3H]collagen. Collagen was steadily degraded over the period of several weeks by phorbol ester-treated cells while little collagenolysis by cells not receiving phorbol ester was noted. Examination of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) secreted by HUVECs revealed a prominent induction of interstitial collagenase. Production of the mature forms of gelatinase A was also stimulated, as was the secretion of gelatinase B. Stromelysin was not detected. Two inhibitors of MMPs, the naturally occurring tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases (TIMP; 10 micrograms/ml) and the synthetic, peptide inhibitor BB-94 (1 microM) were both effective at blocking HUVEC-mediated collagen degradation. Morphological examination of control, PMA-treated HUVECs, as well as PMA-treated HUVECs receiving TIMP or BB-94, revealed that MMP inhibition resulted in a block to invasion and tubule formation within the collagen gels. Similar results for MMP expression and inhibition of tubule formation in vitro were obtained with human dermal microvascular endothelial cells. Examination of collagen proteolytic fragments revealed that both BB-94 and TIMP blocked cleavage of the alpha 1 and alpha 2 chains of type I collagen and the appearance of tropocollagen fragments A and B, demonstrating that the inhibitors were acting directly upon interstitial collagenase. Our results demonstrate that interstitial collagenase is required for angiogenesis in vitro.