Matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) are zinc dependent endopeptidases implicated in cancer invasion and metastasis. Gelatin zymography was performed on 84 human breast carcinomas and seven normal breast tissues. The precursor form of MMP-2 (72 kDa) was found in 11 (12%) samples, while its two activated forms, i.e. 62 kDa and 59 kDa, were found in three (6%) and 34 (40%) samples respectively. In contrast to MMP-2, most of the samples (52%) contained MMP-9 in its precursor form. Using ELISA, MMP-1 levels were found in 12% of the samples while MMP-3 levels were found in only 2% of the samples. Levels of MMP-2, -3 and -9 correlated inversely with numbers of nodal metastases. Neither MMP-2 nor -9 levels were significantly related to patient outcome. However, patients with high levels of a 50-kDa gelatinase band after zymography had a significantly better survival than patients with low levels. This species was never observed in normal breast tissue.