Although matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) are among the potential key mediators of cancer invasion, their involvement in premalignant lesions and conditions is not clarified. Therefore, we studied, using in situ hybridization, immunohistochemistry and zymography the expression and distribution of MMP-1 and -2, and their tissue inhibitors (TIMPs -1, -2 and -3) in oral squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) and lymph node metastases as well as in oral lichen planus, epithelial dysplasias and normal buccal mucosa. In oral SCC and lymph node metastasis, MMP-1 mRNA was detected in fibroblastic cells of tumoral stroma. In two out of ten carcinomas studied, the peripheral cells of neoplastic islands were also positive. MMP-2 mRNA expression was noted in fibroblasts surrounding the carcinoma cells, and no signal in carcinoma cells was detected. A clear TIMP-3 mRNA expression was seen in stromal cells surrounding the neoplastic islands in all SCCs and lymph node metastases studied. TIMP-1 mRNA was detected in some stromal cells surrounding the neoplastic islands, whereas the mRNA expression for TIMP-2 was negligible. On the other hand, expression of MMPs and TIMPs was consistently low in oral epithelial dysplasias, lichen planus and normal mucosa. In certain epithelial dysplasias and lichen planus, MMP-1 and -2 mRNA expressions were detected in few fibroblasts under the basement membrane zone, but normal mucosa was completely negative. In SCC and lymph node metastasis, a detectable immunostaining for MMP-1 in stromal cells and in some carcinoma cells was observed. MMP-2 immunoreactivity was detected in the peripheral cell layer in neoplastic islands and in some fibroblast-like cells of tumoral stroma. Immunostaining for TIMP-3 was detected in stromal cells surrounding the neoplastic islands. A weak positive staining for TIMP-1 was located in tumoral stroma, whereas the immunostaining for TIMP-2 was negative. Using zymography, elevated levels of MMP-2 and MMP-9 were observed in carcinoma samples in comparison with lichen planus or normal oral mucosa. Our results indicate that the studied MMPs and TIMPs are clearly up-regulated during invasion in oral SCC. However, there was also a clear, although weak, up-regulation of the expression of the MMPs but not TIMPs in some of the lichen planus and dysplastic lesions.