Data implicate IL-1 in the altered matrix biology that characterizes human intervertebral disc (IVD) degeneration. In the current study we investigated the enzymic mechanism by which IL-1 induces matrix degradation in degeneration of the human IVD, and whether the IL-1 inhibitor IL-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1Ra) will inhibit degradation. A combination of in situ zymography (ISZ) and immunohistochemistry was used to examine the effects of IL-1 and IL-1Ra on matrix degradation and metal-dependent protease (MDP) expression in explants of non-degenerate and degenerate human IVDs. ISZ employed three substrates (gelatin, collagen, casein) and different challenges (IL-1β, IL-1Ra and enzyme inhibitors). Immunohistochemistry was undertaken for MDPs. In addition, IL-1Ra was introduced into degenerate IVD explants using genetically engineered constructs. The novel findings from this study are: IL-1Ra delivered directly onto explants of degenerate IVDs eliminates matrix degradation as assessed by multi-substrate ISZ; there is a direct relationship between matrix degradation assessed by ISZ and MDP expression defined by immunohistochemistry; single injections of IVD cells engineered to over-express IL-1Ra significantly inhibit MDP expression for two weeks. Our findings show that IL-1 is a key cytokine driving matrix degradation in the degenerate IVD. Furthermore, IL-1Ra delivered directly or by gene therapy inhibits IVD matrix degradation. IL-1Ra could be used therapeutically to inhibit degeneration of the IVD. © 2007 Le Maitre et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.