The Institute for Molecular Medicine, Huntington Beach CA 92649 USA We have sought to determine the production and activity of serine proteases in primary and metastatic spinal tumors and the association of these enzymes with the invasive and metastatic properties of spinal column tumors. Using immunohistochemical techniques, the cellular localization and expression of uroki-nase- type plasminogen activator (uPA) was assessed, whereas its activity was determined by fibrin zymog-raphy, and the amounts of enzyme were measured by an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) in primary spinal column tumors (chordoma, chondrosarcoma, and giant cell tumor) and metastatic tumors of the spine arising from various malignancies (breast, lung, thyroid, and renal cell carcinomas, and melanomas). Metastatic tumors displayed higher levels of uPA activity than did primary spinal tumors (P < 0.001). Immunohistochemical analysis revealed that uPA expression was highest in metastases from lung and breast carcinomas and melanomas, followed by metastatic tumors from thyr oid and renal cell carcinomas. Similar results were obtained for uPA activity and enzyme level as determined by fibrin zymography and ELISA, respectively. We conclude that metastatic spinal tumors possess higher levels of uPA expression and activity than the primary spinal tumors, which tend to be less aggressive and only locally invasive malignancies. The results suggest that the plasminogen system may participate in the metastasis of tumors to the spinal column.