The aim of the study was to immunolocalise interstitial collagenase (MMP-1) and the tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases (TIMP-1) in ulcerating corneas from patients with rheumatoid arthritis, to determine whether changes in expression are associated with destructive corneal disease. Collagenase was expressed by stromal cells in 8 of 8 ulcerating corneas but was not seen in normal tissue (n = 3). TIMP-1 was abundant throughout the normal stroma, but was much reduced or absent from diseased corneas. Collagenase staining was frequently more intense near the epithelial surface and associated with a cellular infiltrate consisting of activated antigen-presenting cells (HLA-DR+), many of which were macrophages (CD68+) and derived from the epithelium or limbus (S100+). Interstitial collagenase produced by infiltrating macrophages and/or stimulated corneal fibrocytes is probably a major mediator of collagen degradation in rheumatoid corneal ulceration. In addition, reduced levels of TIMP-1 expression are consistent with collagenase activity and tissue destruction. Epithelial-stromal cell interactions and the production of local inflammatory mediators are of major importance in the pathogenesis of corneal destruction, although the precise nature of the antigenic stimulation and/or cellular interactions remains to be elucidated.