The formation of distant metastasis is the main cause of morbidity and mortality in patients with cancer. The aim of this article is to review recent advances in molecular and clinical aspects of metastasis. Traditionally, genes encoding extracellular matrix (ECM) processing proteases, adhesion proteins, and motility factors were thought to be amongst the main mediators of metastasis. Recently, however, genes activated during the early stages of tumourigenesis were implicated in the process. Conversely, genes thought to be primarily involved in metastasis such as urokinase plasminogen (uPA) and certain matrix metalloproteases (MMPs) are now known to also play a role in the early steps of tumour progression, perhaps by stimulating cell proliferation and/or promoting angiogenesis. Paradoxically, certain endogenous protease inhibitors such as PAI-1 and TIMP-1 appear to promote cancer metastasis rather than inhibiting the process. These recent advances in our understanding should lead to the development of new molecular markers for predicting the likely formation of metastasis as well as the identification of new targets for anti-metastatic therapies. Copyright © 2007 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.