Diabetes is a major risk factor for coronary and peripheral artery diseases. Although diabetic patients often present with advanced forms of these diseases, it is not known whether the compensatory mechanisms to vascular ischemia are affected in this condition. Accordingly, we sought to determine whether diabetes could: 1) impair the development of new collateral vessel formation in response to tissue ischemia and 2) inhibit cytokine-induced therapeutic neovascularization. Hindlimb ischemia was created by femoral artery ligation in nonobese diabetic mice (NOD mice, n = 20) and in control C57 mice (n = 20). Hindlimb perfusion was evaluated by serial laser Doppler studies after the surgery. In NOD mice, measurement of the Doppler flow ratio between the ischemic and the normal limb indicated that restoration of perfusion in the ischemic hindlimb was significantly impaired. At day 14 after surgery, Doppler flow ratio in the NOD mice was 0.49+/-0.04 versus 0.73+/-0.06 for the C57 mice (P< or =0.005). This impairment in blood flow recovery persisted throughout the duration of the study with Doppler flow ratio values at day 35 of 0.50+/-0.05 versus 0.90+/-0.07 in the NOD and C57 mice, respectively (P< or =0.001). CD31 immunostaining confirmed the laser Doppler data by showing a significant reduction in capillary density in the NOD mice at 35 days after surgery (302+/-4 capillaries/mm2 versus 782+/-78 in C57 mice (P< or =0.005). The reduction in neovascularization in the NOD mice was the result of a lower level of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) in the ischemic tissues, as assessed by Northern blot, Western blot and immunohistochemistry. The central role of VEGF was confirmed by showing that normal levels of neovascularization (compared with C57) could be achieved in NOD mice that had been supplemented for this growth factor via intramuscular injection of an adenoviral vector encoding for VEGF. We conclude that 1) diabetes impairs endogenous neovascularization of ischemic tissues; 2) the impairment in new blood vessel formation results from reduced expression of VEGF; and 3) cytokine supplementation achieved by intramuscular adeno-VEGF gene transfer restores neovascularization in a mouse model of diabetes.