We examined the expression level of several genes that regulate different steps of metastasis in formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded archival specimens of primary human colon carcinomas from patients with at least 5 years of follow-up. The expression of epidermal growth factor receptor, basic fibroblast growth factor, type IV collagenase, E-cadherin, and multidrug resistance (mdr-1) was examined by a colorimetric in situ mRNA hybridization technique concentrating on reactivity at the periphery of the neoplasms. The in situ hybridization technique revealed inter- and intratumor heterogeneity for expression of the metastasis-related genes. The expression of basic fibroblast growth factor, collagenase type IV, epidermal growth factor receptor, and mdr-1 mRNA was higher in Dukes's stage D than in Dukes' stage B tumors. Among the 22 Dukes' stage B neoplasms, 5 specimens exhibited a high expression level of epidermal growth factor receptor, basic fibroblast growth factor, and collagenase type IV. Clinical outcome data (5-year follow-up) revealed that all 5 patients with Dukes' stage B tumors developed distant metastasis (recurrent disease), whereas the other 17 patients with Dukes' stage B tumors expressing low levels of the metastasis-related genes were disease-free. Multivariate analysis identified high levels of expression of collagenase type IV and low levels of expression of E-cadherin as independent factors significantly associated with metastasis or recurrent disease. More specifically, metastatic or recurrent disease was associated with a high ratio (> 1.35) of expression of collagenase type IV to E-cadherin (specificity of 95%). Collectively, the data show that multiparametric in situ hybridization analysis for several metastasis-related genes may predict the metastatic potential, and hence the clinical outcome, of individual lymph-node-negative human colon cancers.