Endometrial matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), which increase dramatically at menstruation, are purported to cause the focal tissue breakdown at menstruation, but how their expression or activation is locally regulated is unknown. Mast cell activation occurs within perimenstrual endometrium, and we postulated that mast cell products would regulate endometrial MMPs. We have examined the interaction between human mast cells and endometrial stromal cells with regard to MMP production and activation. The human mast cell line (HMC-1) in coculture with stromal cells stimulated stromal cell proMMP-1 and proMMP-3, and to a lesser extent proMMP-2 production, with increasing stimulation as mast cell number increased. Mast cell-conditioned medium also increased both protein and mRNA for stromal proMMP-1 and proMMP-3, this being abrogated by preadsorption of mast cell- conditioned medium with antisera to interleukin-1 and tumor necrosis factor α. Mast cell-conditioned medium added to stromal cell culture medium in vitro along with added heparin (which stabilizes tryptase activity) resulted in the appearance of molecular weight forms indicative of active MMP-3 and MMP-1. Thus activated mast cells within the endometrium prior to menstruation have the potential to stimulate MMP production by endometrial stromal cells and to initiate precursor activation, and are likely to account for the local nature of endometrial MMP action resulting in foci of tissue breakdown at menstruation.