Although it is known that systemic diseases such as diabetes result in impaired wound healing, the mechanism for this impairment is not understood. Because fibroblasts are essential for wound repair, we compared the in vitro behavior of fibroblasts cultured from diabetic, leptin receptor-deficient (db/db) mice with wild-type fibroblasts from mice of the same genetic background in processes important during tissue repair. Adult diabetic mouse fibroblast migration exhibited a 75% reduction in migration compared to normal fibroblasts (P < 0.001) and was not significantly stimulated by hypoxia (1% O(2)), whereas wild-type fibroblast migration was up-regulated nearly twofold in hypoxic conditions (P < 0.05). Diabetic fibroblasts produced twice the amount of pro-matrix metalloproteinase-9 as normal fibroblasts, as measured by both gelatin zymography and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (P < 0.05). Adult diabetic fibroblasts exhibited a sevenfold impairment in vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) production (4.5 +/- 1.3 pg/ml versus 34.8 +/- 3.3 pg/ml, P < 0.001) compared to wild-type fibroblasts. Moreover, wild-type fibroblast production of VEGF increased threefold in response to hypoxia, whereas diabetic fibroblast production of VEGF was not up-regulated in hypoxic conditions (P < 0.001). To address the question whether these differences resulted from chronic hyperglycemia or absence of the leptin receptor, fibroblasts were harvested from newborn db/db mice before the onset of diabetes (4 to 5 weeks old). These fibroblasts showed no impairments in VEGF production under basal or hypoxic conditions, confirming that the results from db/db fibroblasts in mature mice resulted from the diabetic state and were not because of alterations in the leptin-leptin receptor axis. Markers of cellular viability including proliferation and senescence were not significantly different between diabetic and wild-type fibroblasts. We conclude that, in vitro, diabetic fibroblasts show selective impairments in discrete cellular processes critical for tissue repair including cellular migration, VEGF production, and the response to hypoxia. The VEGF abnormalities developed concurrently with the onset of hyperglycemia and were not seen in normoglycemic, leptin receptor-deficient db/db mice. These observations support a role for fibroblast dysfunction in the impaired wound healing observed in human diabetics, and also suggest a mechanism for the poor clinical outcomes that occur after ischemic injury in diabetic patients.