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Bronchial asthma is characterized by eosinophil infiltration and tissue remodeling. Matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) are thought to play critical roles by degradating interstitial matrices in a wide range of lung diseases associated with reorganization of the airway architecture. To investigate whether MMPs are involved in the pathologic processes of bronchial asthma, we examined MMP expression in asthmatic subjects. In situ hybridization revealed abundant expression of MMP-9 (gelatinase B) mRNA in biopsy specimens from asthmatic subjects (n = 5), with an average positive cell distribution of 117.8 +/- 41.1 (mean +/- SEM)/mm2. In contrast, sparse expression of the mRNA (10.8 +/- 4.8 /mm2) was observed in specimens from normal subjects (n = 4). The vast majority of cells expressing the mRNA were eosinophils in asthmatic tissues (92.2 +/- 1.2%). MMP-9 protein, which was confined to the submucosal cells in the normal subjects, was not abundantly expressed in inflammatory cells, but there was positive reactivity for MMP-9 protein in the extracellular matrix. Immunoelectron microscopic analysis showed sparse immunolocalization of MMP-9 in the perinuclear spaces of eosinophils, but not in the granules. These findings suggest the overexpression of MMP-9 by eosinophils in bronchial tissues of asthmatic individuals, and the participation of MMPs in the pathologic changes in asthmatic airways.