Type 1 diabetes is associated with a progressive loss of beta cells and pancreatic islet transplantation could represent a cure for this disease. Herein we explored whether transplantation of bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) allowed a reduced number of pancreatic islets to improve glycemic control in diabetic rats, by promoting islet vascularization. We transplanted 2000 syngenic islets alone or in combination with MSCs (10(6) cells) under the kidney capsules of diabetic Lewis rats. Animals transplanted with 2000 islets never reached normoglycemia. In contrast, rats transplanted with 2000 islets plus MSCs, showed a gradual fall in glycemia after transplantation, with normoglycemia maintained until killing. Comparable glycemic control was obtained with transplantation of 3000 islets alone. The MSC preparation used for in vivo experiments expressed high levels of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF(165)) and, at less extent, VEGF(189), as evaluated by reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). In transplanted animals, vascularization was quantified by morphometric analysis of islet grafts with anti-RECA and anti-insulin antibodies. MSCs were stained with PKH-26. Mean capillary density was 1002 +/- 55 capillaries/mm(2) in islets transplanted alone. Co-infusion of MSCs with islets significantly increased the number of capillaries to 1459 +/- 66 capillaries/mm(2). In conclusion, our study indicated that co-transplantation of MSCs with pancreatic islets improved islet graft function by promoting graft vascularization.