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The effects of topical betamethasone-17-valerate on collagen propeptide levels, collagen mRNA level, lysyl oxidase mRNA and matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-1 and MMP-2 mRNA levels were studied in human skin. Three days' treatment of healthy skin with topical betamethasone caused a 70–80% decrease in type I and III collagen propeptides in suction blister fluid. A similar decrease was found in type I collagen mRNA when assayed by either slot-blot hybridization or a quantitative polymerase chain reaction method, indicating that the decrease in collagen synthesis after topical glucocorticoid treatment is apparently due to a decrease in corresponding mRNA. mRNA of lysyl oxidase, which is an important enzyme catalysing the cross-linking of collagen chains, and collagen-degrading enzyme MMP-1 and MMP-2 mRNAs were not decreased in the same skin samples. This suggests that in vivo, glucocorticoids modulate variably the genes involved in collagen synthesis and degradation. Our study provides a solid molecular basis for glucocorticoid-induced dermal atrophy, which results from the decrease in functional collagen mRNA in the skin.