To invade the decidua and myometrium, extravillous trophoblast must degrade an assortment of extracellular matrix (ECM) components. The uterine wall is rich in heparan sulphate proteoglycans (HSPG), which interact with collagen, laminin and fibronectin, and bind a variety of growth factors. HSPG are catabolised by heparanase, an enzyme that is highly expressed in the placenta. The aim of this study was to investigate the role of heparanase in first trimester trophoblast invasion. First trimester cytotrophoblasts (CTB) were isolated by trypsin digestion followed by centrifugation on a Percoll gradient. Cells were cultured on Matrigel to promote an extravillous phenotype. Heparanase expression was studied by immunohistochemistry and confocal microscopy. Trophoblast invasion was assessed using an in vitro transwell assay. A high level of heparanase was observed in isolated first trimester trophoblast; however, a function-blocking antibody did not inhibit invasion of primary CTB or the extravillous trophoblast cell line SGHPL-4 at 21% oxygen. In contrast to cancer cells, heparanase expression was not increased following culture at 3% oxygen, and trophoblast invasion was not retarded by the blocking antibody under these conditions. Heparanase expression was observed in stromal cells and vascular endothelium in first trimester parietal decidua. Expression was evident on the cell surface and in the nucleus of trophoblast and decidual cells. In conclusion, trophoblast heparanase is not required for invasion in vitro. Its abundant expression suggests another role during pregnancy, perhaps in controlling the availability of ECM-bound growth factors or acting as a transcription factor. © 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.