The demonstration that matrix metalloproteinases [MMPs] play an active role in the invasion and metastasis stages of tumor progression has led to the development of a new class of anti-metastatic chemotherapeutic agent, the matrix metalloproteinase inhibitors [MMPIs]. We present evidence to suggest that the MMP matrilysin, in particular, plays an essential role in much earlier stages of intestinal tumorigenesis. Matrilysin is detected in a high percentage of pre-invasive lesions, in contrast to its absence in most normal tissues, and is expressed by the epithelial-derived tumor cells. Manipulating levels of this enzyme in vitro results in cell lines with enhanced tumorigenic potential, while ablating the gene in vivo leads to a significant reduction in tumor number in two different animal models of intestinal tumorigenesis. Additionally, regulation of matrilysin gene expression appears to be under the control of genetic pathways which are activated very early in the tumor development sequence. Although the precise mechanism by which matrilysin activity contributes to tumor formation is not yet clear, we propose that MMPIs may be of benefit as chemopreventative agents in addition to their therapeutic potential for metastatic disease.