Matrix proteases and the transcription factor c-Ets-1, which regulates in vitro stromelysin 1, collagenase 1, and urokinase type plasminogen activator gene promoters, are frequently expressed in invasive carcinomas. Using in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry, we analyzed collagenase 1, stromelysins 1 and 3, matrilysin, urokinase type plasminogen activator, and c-Ets-1 gene expression on serial frozen sections of 39 intraepithelial bronchial lesions, including areas of hyperplasia, metaplasia, dysplasia, carcinoma in situ, and corresponding lung carcinomas in 13 patients. In intraepithelial lesions, expression of all matrix proteases was detected in epithelial cells. Conversely, in microinvasive or invasive lesions, a fibroblastic expression was observed. Collagenase 1 and matrilysin were expressed seldomly in intraepithelial lesions and frequently in carcinomas (p = 0.0016 and p < 0.0001, respectively). Stromelysin 1 was expressed inconsistently in 31% of intraepithelial lesions of all grades and in 50% of carcinomas. Stromelysin 3 and urokinase type plasminogen activator were expressed only, but frequently, in preinvasive lesions (dysplasia, carcinoma in situ) and in carcinomas. The expression of stromelysin 3 in fibroblasts started with dysplasia and carcinoma in situ, but was more frequent in invasive than preinvasive lesions (p = 0.0012). c-Ets-1 was more often expressed in carcinomas than in intraepithelial lesions (p < 0.0001) and was always expressed in fibroblasts. Comparing preinvasive lesions adjacent to or at a distance from squamous lung carcinoma, stromelysin 3 epithelial expression was more frequent in preinvasive lesions adjacent to invasive foci than in others (p = 0.036). We conclude that (a) both epithelial expression of matrix proteases in intraepithelial bronchial lesions and their stromal expression in microinvasive and invasive lesions suggest their role in lung tumor development; (b) c-Ets-1 does not act as a transcriptional activator for matrix proteases genes in preinvasion, although it might regulate collagenase 1 gene during lung tumor progression; and (c) matrix proteases might offer new therapeutic targets for chemoprevention of lung cancer.