The serine protease urokinase-type plasminogen activator (uPA) interacts with a specific receptor (uPAR) on the surface of various cell types, including tumor cells, and plays a crucial role in pericellular proteolysis. High levels of uPA and uPAR often correlate with poor prognosis of cancer patients. Therefore, the specific inhibition of uPA with small molecule active-site inhibitors is one strategy to decrease the invasive and metastatic activity of tumor cells. We have developed a series of highly potent and selective uPA inhibitors with a C-terminal 4-amidinobenzylamide residue. Optimization was directed toward reducing the fast elimination from circulation that was observed with initial analogues. The x-ray structures of three inhibitor/uPA complexes have been solved and were used to improve the inhibition efficacy. One of the most potent and selective derivatives, benzylsulfonyl-D-Ser-Ser-4-amidinobenzylamide (inhibitor 26), inhibits uPA with a Ki of 20 nm. This inhibitor was used in a fibrosarcoma model in nude mice using lacZ-tagged human HT1080 cells, to prevent experimental lung metastasis formation. Compared with control (100%), an inhibitor dose of 2 x 1.5 mg/kg/day reduced the number of experimental metastases to 4.6 +/- 1%. Under these conditions inhibitor 26 also significantly prolonged survival. All mice from the control group died within 43 days after tumor cell inoculation, whereas 50% of mice from the inhibitor-treated group survived more than 117 days. This study demonstrates that the specific inhibition of uPA by these inhibitors may be a useful strategy for the treatment of cancer to prevent metastasis.