Matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) are expressed in osteoarthritic (OA) cartilage and are thought to be involved in the degradation of cartilage extracellular matrix (ECM). Among these proteinases, MMP-2 (gelatinase A) demonstrates a wide range of substrate specificity against the ECM present in cartilage. Although MMP-2 expression increases in OA cartilage, the activation mechanism of the corresponding zymogen (pro-MMP-2) in cartilage is unknown. In this study, we examined the expression pattern of membrane-type 1 MMP (MT1-MMP) in human OA articular cartilage and its correlation with the activation of pro-MMP-2. Immunohistochemical studies demonstrate that MT1-MMP localizes to the chondrocytes in the superficial and transitional zones in all of the samples examined directly correlating with cartilage degradation. Reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction confirmed the predominant expression of MT1-MMP mRNA in the OA cartilage. In situ hybridization revealed the site of expression of MT1-MMP in OA cartilage to be the chondrocytes. Through gelatin zymography and a sandwich enzyme immunoassay it was demonstrated that OA cartilage explants secrete significantly higher levels of pro-MMP-2 than normal samples. Pro-MMP-2 activation was enhanced in the OA cartilage samples and correlated with MT1-MMP expression in the cartilage. Plasma membranes prepared from cultured chondrocytes with MT1-MMP expression and those directly isolated from OA cartilage could activate pro-MMP-2. MT1-MMP gene expression in cultured chondrocytes was induced by treatment with interleukin-1 alpha and/or tumor necrosis factor-alpha. These data suggest that cytokine-induced MT1-MMP in the chondrocytes may play a key role in the activation of pro-MMP-2 in the OA articular cartilage, leading to cartilage destruction through ECM degradation.