Normal and abnormal processes of cellular invasion often are initiated by degradation of basement membranes. The process of corneal ulceration might operate via similar mechanisms; degradation of the corneal stroma is not seen until after the basement membrane underlying the corneal epithelium in the preulcerative lesion is lost. Recent data implicate a member of the matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) family of enzymes, 92 kD gelatinase/type IV collagenase (MMP-9) in both cellular invasion processes and degradation of epithelial basement membrane before corneal ulceration. This suggests that use of nontoxic substances that block activity of MMP-9 might be useful in preventing or inhibiting pathologic invasion processes in vivo. An agent that fits these criteria is N-[D,L-2-isobutyl-3(N'-hydroxycarbonylamido)-propanoyl]-O- methyl-L-tyrosine methylamide, which previously has been characterized as an inhibitor of tumor cell collagenases. In this study, the authors show that the inhibitor can efficiently block activity of MMP-9 purified from cultures of rabbit corneal epithelial cells. Results suggest that the recently reported efficacy of a closely related inhibitor in blocking progression of alkali burns to ulceration might be attributable to its action against MMP-9.