Matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) consist of a multigene family of zinc-dependent extracellular matrix (ECM) remodeling endopeptidases implicated in pathological processes, such as carcinogenesis. In this regard, their activity plays a pivotal role in tumor growth and the multistep processes of invasion and metastasis, including proteolytic degradation of ECM, alteration of the cell-cell and cell-ECM interactions, migration and angiogenesis. The underlying premise of the current minireview is that MMPs are able to proteolytically process substrates in the extracellular milieu and, in so doing, promote tumor progression. However, certain members of the MMP family exert contradicting roles at different stages during cancer progression, depending among other factors on the tumor stage, tumor site, enzyme localization and substrate profile. MMPs are therefore amenable to therapeutic intervention by synthetic and natural inhibitors, providing perspectives for future studies. Multiple therapeutic agents, called matrix metalloproteinase inhibitors (MMPIs) have been developed to target MMPs, attempting to control their enzymatic activity. Even though clinical trials with these compounds do not show the expected results in most cases, the field of MMPIs is ongoing. This minireview critically evaluates the role of MMPs in relation to cancer progression, and highlights the challenges, as well as future prospects, for the design, development and efficacy of MMPIs. © 2010 The Authors Journal compilation © 2010 FEBS.