Proteolytic enzymes are required to mediate tumor cell invasion of adjacent tissues and spread of primary tumors to distant sites. Our objective was to examine the activities and molecular forms of plasminogen activator (PA) and matrix metalloproteases (MP) in primary and secondary growths of SC tumors of three human prostatic cell lines (Du-145, PC-3, and 1-LN-PC-3-1A [1-LN], a subline of PC-3) grown in nude mice. The plasminogen activator activities were 1.7 +/- 1.3 (+/- SD), 6.2 +/- 2.8, and 11.5 +/- 4.2 for Du-145, PC-3, and 1-LN in primary SC tumors, respectively. Urokinase was the predominant molecular form of PA found in each tumor as determined from its molecular size (predominantly 54 kDa with a minor activity of 33 kDa) and sensitivity to amiloride. Prominent MP activities of approximately 68, 76, and 96 kDa as well as lesser activities of about 56, 59, 63, 84, 165, and 180 kDa were found in 1-LN tumors, whereas only less active MP of 59, 68, and 96 kDa were detected in the parental PC-3 cells. Du-145 tumors expressed MP activities of 59 and 96 kDa. Treatment of 1-LN tumor extracts with p-aminophenylmercuric acetate (APMA) significantly reduced the MP activities of 76 and 165 kDa while increasing activities of 56, 59, 65, 68, and 84 kDa. The 76 and 165 kDa MP activities thus appear to be prominent proenzyme forms of MP expressed in the 1-LN tumor. Secondary growths of tumor were subsequently found near the site of initial injection of PC-3 and 1-LN cells following removal of the primary tumor. There was a 42% increase in PA activity in the PC-3 secondary tumors, but only an 8% increase in 1-LN secondary tumors. However, there was no difference in the activities or number of molecular forms of MP in extracts of PC-3 or 1-LN primary or secondary tumors. The substantial expression of MP activities in the more aggressive 1-LN subline of the human prostatic PC-3 cell line indicates that induction of certain MP may be an important regulatory event in prostate tumor progression.