Tumour growth is angiogenesis-dependent; brain tumours have more intense neovascularisation than other tumours and produce basic fibroblast growth factor, a potent angiogenic mediator. Because little is known about the release of basic fibroblast growth factor from brain tumours into extracellular fluids, we tested cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from 26 children and young adults with brain tumours and 18 controls for basic fibroblast growth factor and for proliferative activity on cultured capillary endothelial cells. We also measured the density of microvessels in tumours by immunohistochemical staining. Basic fibroblast growth factor was detected in the CSF of 62% (16 of 26) patients with brain tumours but in none of the controls. Specimens with basic fibroblast growth factor stimulated DNA synthesis of capillary endothelial cells in vitro. Endothelial proliferative activity was blocked by neutralising antibodies to basic fibroblast growth factor. Basic fibroblast growth factor correlated with mitogenic activity in CSF in vitro (p < or = 0.0001), and with density of microvessels in histological sections (p < or = 0.005). A microvessel count of > or = 68 per 200 x field was associated with tumour recurrence (p = 0.005) and with mortality (p = 0.02). Basic fibroblast growth factor in brain tumours may mediate angiogenesis as measured by microvessel density in histological sections, so has potential as both a marker for neoplasia and a target for tumour treatments. Furthermore, evaluation of cerebrospinal fluid basic fibroblast growth factor, along with microvessel quantitation in biopsied tumours, may provide improved prognostic information for the management of patients with brain tumours.