The objective of the current study was to investigate the effects of Rap1GAP on invasion and progression of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and the role of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) 9 and MMP2 in this process. Rap1GAP functions by switching off Rap1, the Ras-like protein that has been associated with carcinogenesis. Previous findings suggest that Rap1GAP acts as a tumor suppressor protein in SCC by delaying the G(1)-S transition of the cell cycle. However, cells transfected with Rap1GAP exhibit a more invasive phenotype than corresponding vector-transfected control cells. MMP2 and MMP9 are enzymes that mediate SCC invasion via degradation of the extracellular matrix. Using SCC cells transfected with empty vector or Rap1GAP, cell invasion and MMP secretion were determined by Matrigel assays and gelatin zymography, respectively. Rap1GAP up-regulated transcription and secretion of MMP2 and MMP9, as assayed by quantitative reverse transcription-PCR and zymography. Furthermore, chemical and RNA interference blockade of MMP2/MMP9 inhibited invasion by Rap1GAP-transfected cells. Immunohistochemical staining of a human oropharyngeal SCC tissue microarray showed that Rap1GAP and MMP9 expression and staining intensity are correlated (P < 0.0001) and that, in early N-stage lesions of SCC, high MMP9 is prognostic of poor disease-specific survival (P < 0.05). Furthermore, Rap1GAP staining is correlated with MMP2 (P < 0.03). MMP2 in combination with N stage has a prognostic effect on time to indication of surgery at primary site. MMP2 intensity is also positively correlated with T stage (P < 0.015). In conclusion, Rap1GAP inhibits tumor growth but induces MMP2- and MMP9-mediated SCC invasion and tumor progression, suggesting a role for this protein as a biomarker for early N-stage, aggressive SCCs.