The uPA-mediated pathway of plasminogen activation is central to cancer metastasis. Whether uPA and PAI-1 are related to local recurrence, metastatic spread or both is not clear. We present a retrospective study of 429 primary breast cancer patients with a median follow-up of 5.1 years, in which the levels of uPA and PAI-1 in tumour extracts were analysed by means of an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. The median values of uPA and PAI-1, which were used as cut-off points, were 4.5 and 11.1 ng mg(-1) protein respectively. The levels of uPA and PAI-1 were correlated with tumour size, degree of anaplasia, steroid receptor status and number of positive nodes. Patients with high content of either uPA or PAI-1 had increased risk of relapse and death. We demonstrated an independent ability of PAI-1 to predict distant metastasis (relative risk 1.7, confidence limits 1.22 and 2.46) and that neither uPA nor PAI-1 provided any information regarding local recurrence.