Cyclosporin A is successfully used in the treatment of scleroderma, a condition with excessive deposition of collagen in the dermis. Cultured human dermal fibroblasts were used as a model to study the effects of cyclosporin A on metalloproteinase expression and activity. Fibroblasts were treated with collagenase inducing agents, phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA), cytokines interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta), tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha), and the calcium ionophore A23187 in the presence of cyclosporin A under serum-free conditions, and alterations in metalloproteinase expression were studied by Northern hybridization and immunoblotting analyses, and assays for collagenolytic activity. Induction of collagenase expression by PMA and cytokines was enhanced severalfold by 1-10 microM cyclosporin A. Treatment of cells with cyclosporin A alone caused only a minor increase in collagenase mRNA levels. The secretion of immunoreactive collagenase protein and the level of p-aminophenylmercuric acetate activatable collagenase activity were increased by PMA and further enhanced by cyclosporin A. The expression of the other metalloproteinases stromelysin-1, 92-kD gelatinase, and 72-kD gelatinase or metalloproteinase inhibitor TIMP-1 were not affected by cyclosporin A. Time dependence analysis of the expression of the mRNAs for c-jun and junB indicated that the induction of these genes persisted significantly longer in cells treated with both PMA and cyclosporin A than in cells treated with PMA alone. Enhanced induction of collagenase mRNA may thus result from prolonged AP-1 activity. The results indicate that cyclosporin A potently enhances the expression of collagenase in dermal fibroblasts.