The matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), a family of 25 secreted and cell surface-bound neutral proteinases, process a large array of extracellular and cell surface proteins under normal and pathological conditions. MMPs play critical roles in lung organogenesis, but their expression, for the most part, is downregulated after generation of the alveoli. Our knowledge about the resurgence of the MMPs that occurs in most inflammatory diseases of the lung is rapidly expanding. Although not all members of the MMP family are found within the lung tissue, many are upregulated during the acute and chronic phases of these diseases. Furthermore, potential MMP targets in the lung include all structural proteins in the extracellular matrix (ECM), cell adhesion molecules, growth factors, cytokines, and chemokines. However, what is less known is the role of MMP proteolysis in modulating the function of these substrates in vivo. Because of their multiplicity and substantial substrate overlap, MMPs are thought to have redundant functions. However, as we explore in this review, such redundancy most likely evolved as a necessary compensatory mechanism given the critical regulatory importance of MMPs. While inhibition of MMPs has been proposed as a therapeutic option in a variety of inflammatory lung conditions, a complete understanding of the biology of these complex enzymes is needed before we can reasonably consider them as therapeutic targets.
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