To assess the possible involvement of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) in the pathology of osteoarthritic (OA) cartilage, we examined the expression of VEGF isoforms and their receptors in the articular cartilage, and the effects of VEGF on the production of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) and tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases (TIMPs) in OA chondrocytes. Reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction analyses demonstrated that mRNAs for three VEGF isoforms (VEGF(121), VEGF(165), and VEGF(189)) are detectable in all of the OA and normal (NOR) cartilage samples. However, the mRNA expression of their receptors (VEGFR-1 = Flt-1, VEGFR-2 = KDR and neuropilin-1) was recognized only in the OA samples. The protein expression of VEGFR-1 and VEGFR-2 in OA chondrocytes was also demonstrated by immunohistochemistry of the OA cartilage tissue and cultured OA chondrocytes. In situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry indicated that VEGF is expressed in the chondrocytes in the superficial and transitional zones of OA cartilage. A linear correlation was obtained between VEGF immunoreactivity and Mankin scores in the cartilage (r = 0.906, P < 0.001). The production levels of VEGF determined by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay were significantly 3.3-fold higher in OA than in NOR samples (P < 0.001). Among MMP-1, -2, -3, -7, -8, -9, and -13, TIMP-1 and -2 measured by their sandwich enzyme immunoassay systems, the production of MMP-1 and MMP-3 but not TIMP-1 or TIMP-2 was significantly enhanced by the treatment of cultured OA chondrocytes with VEGF (P < 0.05), whereas no such effect was obtained with cultured NOR chondrocytes. These results demonstrate that VEGF and its receptors are expressed in OA cartilage, and suggest the possibility that VEGF is implicated for the destruction of OA articular cartilage through the increased production of MMPs.