By the degradative effect on basement membrane collagen type IV, matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) or gelatinases are important in the early invasion of malignant tumors. These enzymes may be released by the tumor cells themselves or may be derived from nearby fibroblasts that have been stimulated by the extracellular MMP inducer EMMPRIN. We studied the distribution of 92-kd gelatinase B (MMP-9) and of EMMPRIN in 33 benign and 41 malignant, paraffin-embedded pigment cell lesions using immunohistochemistry and monoclonal antibodies. In benign pigment cell lesions, EMMPRIN but not gelatinase B was expressed in cellular blue nevi whereas all other benign lesions, including common blue nevi, were negative. In malignant melanomas (MMs), both gelatinase B and EMMPRIN were variably expressed in the pure and invasive radial growth phase but not in the vertical growth phase. All lentigo maligna cases and all metastatic lesions were negative. Of MMs with thickness < 1.6 mm, 63% expressed gelatinase B and 70% expressed EMMPRIN, whereas in MMs with > 1.6 mm thickness, only 10% expressed gelatinase B and only 25% expressed EMMPRIN. We conclude that early invasion of MM is associated with de novo expression of gelatinase B and EMMPRIN by neoplastic melanocytes. Expression of EMMPRIN and MMP-9 may be partly responsible for the stromal changes observed in thin MM. Their absence in the vertical growth phase and in metastatic lesions suggests that other factors are involved in tissue degradation during later stages of tumor progression in MM. The lack of both gelatinase B and EMMPRIN in lentigo maligna may contribute to the indolent behavior of this type of pigment cell lesion.