Latent matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) in normal myocardium are activated in end-stage heart failure. In vitro oxidized glutathione (GSSG) activates myocardial MMPs which contains a cysteine residue. In vivo GSSG induce the collagen lysis and cardiac dilatation. To assess whether thiol and non-thiol reducing agents have direct effect on the interstitial human heart fibroblast (HHF) proliferation and MMP expression, HHF and polyoma virus transformed fibroblast cells were cultured with or without the thiol-containing reduced (GSH) or oxidized (GSSG) glutathiones, pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate (PDTC) and N-acetylcysteine (NAC), and non-thiol ascorbic acid. After 100 micrograms/ml (approximately 0.3 mM) GSH or PDTC treatment the proliferative (synthetic) phenotype of transformed fibroblast cells was changed to quiescent (contractile) phenotype. Also, after GSH, PDTC, and ascorbic acid treatment the medium was then analyzed for MMP activity by zymography. The results indicate reduction in MMP expression in transformed fibroblast cells after GSH and PDTC treatments and no effect after ascorbic acid treatment. Based on reverse zymography, we observed the level of tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase (TIMP) at a decreased level in transformed cells. The effect of the reducing agent at the gene transcription was measured by estimating mRNA (Northern blot analysis) of MMP and of TIMP in the cells that were cultured in medium in the presence and absence of GSH. These results indicate that GSH induces MMP-2 and MMP-1 expression in normal HHF and that GSH reduces MMP-2 and MMP-1 in transformed fibroblast cells. After the treatment, the TIMP-2 level was repressed in normal HHF and TIMP-2 level increased in transformed fibroblast cells. These events are dependent on the nuclear transcription factor activity on the collagenase promoter in normal HHF cells. On the other hand, in polyoma transform fibroblast cells these events are not dependent on this collagenase promoter. These results suggest that oxidative environment induces normal HHF cell proliferation, and the reducing agent decreases normal HHF cell proliferation by inducing MMP and repressing TIMP gene transcription. In transformed cells reducing agents inhibit MMP expression and increase TIMP levels, which suggests a role of antioxidants in preventing tumorigenesis.