VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) is not only one of the most important angiogenesis factors, but is involved also in inflammatory processes. Recent studies have shown that VEGF as well as its receptor VEGFR-2 are expressed on osteoarthritic chondrocytes, but not on normal adult chondrocytes. Since mechanical overload is one of the causative factors for osteoarthritis, we studied its effect on VEGF expression on bovine cartilage disks that were compressed once with a strain of 50% and a strain rate of 1/second. Under these conditions, control disks (without pressure) were completely negative for VEGF expression as evidenced by immunocytochemical stainings as well as by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) measurements. In contrast, 4 days after mechanical overload, the cartilage disks were positive in both detection methods. In addition, after mechanical overload chondrocytes were strongly immunopositive for hypoxia-inducible factor-1alpha (HIF-1alpha), the limiting protein of the dimeric transcription factor HIF-1 that is known to induce VEGF expression. Furthermore, the matrix metalloproteases MMP-1, MMP-3, and MMP-13, could be easily detected in pressure-treated disks by immunohistochemistry whereas staining in controls was low or undetectable. The tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases (TIMP-1 and -2) could be detected in controls but not in samples treated with mechanical overload. To prove that increased MMP or decreased TIMP expression could be a result of the autocrine action of VEGF on chondrocytes, we repeated the experiments in the presence of a specific inhibitor for the kinase activity of the VEGFR-2. This inhibitor was effective to reduce mechanically induced MMP-1, -3, and -13 immunostaining and to restore TIMP expression. Taking together, these findings indicate that VEGF is induced in chondrocytes by mechanical overload and mediates destructive processes in osteoarthritis as an autocrine factor.