Enhanced matrix metalloproteinase-2 (MMP-2/72-kd type IV collagenase) action correlates with invasion in neoplasia. MMP-2 is inhibited in vivo by tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases (TIMPs)-TIMP-1 and, especially, TIMP-2. A synthetic, biotinylated inhibitor specific for activated MMP-2 in solution phase, and immunohistochemistry were used to detect MMP-2 and TIMP-2 expression in cell lines and ovarian tumors and to analyze the surface-binding capacity of the inhibitors, which are potential therapeutic agents. Characterization of novel monoclonal antibodies to MMP-2 and TIMP-2 is described together with immunocytochemical staining of 83 paraffin-embedded ovarian tumors (67 malignant, 7 borderline, 9 benign) and 9 cell lines. Synthetic MMP-2 inhibitor binding under controlled conditions was visualized by immunofluorescence and avidin-biotin complex immunoperoxidase methods in cell lines and cryostat sections of ovarian tumors. MMP-2 and TIMP-2 showed heterogenous immunoreactivity, with enhanced staining on high-grade tumors, specifically at the invasive front and in vascular invasion. TIMP-2 immunoreactivity was maximal in malignant cell cytoplasm and less intense in desmoplastic fibroblasts. One monoclonal antibody to MMP-2 showed membrane immunoreactivity, apically polarized in benign and low-grade tumors but depolarized and strong in 37 of 44 cases of high-grade invasive tumors. Eleven of eighteen ovarian carcinomas and six of nine cell lines showed membrane localization of the synthetic inhibitor. Maximal binding occurred in the ovarian cell line OVCA 432 and the breast cell lines MCF 7 and MDA MB 435, all of which were immunoreactive for MMP-2. Cell lines propagated on type I collagen showed no enhancement in inhibitor binding. This study demonstrates cell surface binding of a synthetic MMP-2 inhibitor and provides new evidence of MMP-2 and TIMP-2 immunoreactivity in ovarian carcinomas and cell lines.