Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is an endothelial cell mitogen and permeability factor that is potently angiogenic in vivo. We report here studies that suggest that VEGF potentiates angiogenesis in vivo and prolongs the survival of human dermal microvascular endothelial cells (HDMECs) in vitro by inducing expression of the anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-2. Growth-factor-enriched and serum-deficient cultures of HDMECs grown on collagen type I gels with VEGF exhibited a 4-fold and a 1.6-fold reduction, respectively, in the proportion of apoptotic cells. Enhanced HDMEC survival was associated with a dose-dependent increase in Bcl-2 expression and a decrease in the expression of the processed forms of the cysteine protease caspase-3. Cultures of HDMECs transduced with and overexpressing Bcl-2 and deprived of growth factors showed enhanced protection from apoptosis and exhibited a twofold increase in cell number and a fourfold increase in the number of capillary-like sprouts. HDMECs overexpressing Bcl-2 when incorporated into polylactic acid sponges and implanted into SCID mice exhibited a sustained fivefold increase in the number of microvessels and a fourfold decrease in the number of apoptotic cells when examined 7 and 14 days later. These results suggest that the angiogenic activity attributed to VEGF may be due in part to its ability to enhance endothelial cell survival by inducing expression of Bcl-2.