Formation of the atherosclerotic intima must involve altered metabolism of the elastin-rich arterial extracellular matrix. Proteases potentially involved in these processes remain unclear. This study examined the expression of the potent elastases cathepsins S and K in human atheroma. Normal arteries contained little or no cathepsin K or S. In contrast, macrophages in atheroma contained abundant immunoreactive cathepsins K and S. Intimal smooth muscle cells (SMC), especially cells appearing to traverse the internal elastic laminae, also contained these enzymes. Extracts of atheromatous tissues had approximately twofold greater elastase-specific activity than extracts of uninvolved arteries, mostly due to cysteine proteases. Cultured human SMC displayed no immunoreactive cathepsins K and S and exhibited little or no elastolytic activity when incubated with insoluble elastin. SMC stimulated with the atheroma-associated cytokines IL-1beta or IFN-gamma secreted active cathepsin S and degraded substantial insoluble elastin (15-20 microg/10(6) cells/24 h). A selective inhibitor of cathepsin S blocked > 80% of this elastolytic activity. The presence of cathepsins K and S at sites of vascular matrix remodeling and the ability of SMC and macrophages to use these enzymes to degrade elastin supports a role for elastolytic cathepsins in vessel wall remodeling and identifies novel therapeutic targets in regulating plaque stability.