Arterial glycosaminoglycans are considered to be important in atherogenesis due to their ability to trap lipid inside the vessel wall and to influence cellular migration and proliferation. Atherosclerotic lesions have displayed an altered glycosaminoglycan content and distribution. Diabetes is a recognized risk factor for atherosclerosis, but no information is available on the arterial glycosaminoglycans in human diabetes. We examined glycosaminoglycans in normal and atherosclerotic intima of non-diabetic and Type 2 (non-insulin-dependent) diabetic patients. Intima was stripped from autopsy samples of thoracic aortas; normal and plaque areas were separated. Glycosaminoglycans were isolated by delipidation, proteolytic digestion, and precipitation and characterized by quantitation of total glycosaminoglycan and evaluation of glycosaminoglycan distribution by electrophoresis and densitometry. Results indicate a significant decrease in total glycosaminoglycan and significant changes in their distribution in atherosclerotic plaques: a relative decrease in heparan sulphate, a relative increase in dermatan sulphate and thus a decrease in the ratio of heparan sulphate to dermatan sulphate. A similar but less marked change in the ratio was found in normal intima of diabetic subjects, while in their plaques this change was more pronounced. This suggests that changes in arterial glycosaminoglycans (especially the ratio of heparan sulphate to dermatan sulphate) precede the development of lesions in diabetes and may be important in atherogenesis.