Angiogenesis is a critical factor in the growth, progression, and metastatic spread of solid tumors. Furthermore, angiogenesis has been correlated with prognosis in patients with ovarian cancer. The pathogenesis of the angiogenic events in ovarian cancer, however, are not well defined. Vascular permeability factor/vascular endothelial growth factor (VPF/VEGF) is a multifunctional cytokine that has been shown to be an important regulator of tumor angiogenesis. The purpose of the present study was to define the expression of VPF/VEGF and its receptors flt-1 and KDR in ovarian tumors. Four specimens of normal ovarian cortex and 41 specimens of benign (4), borderline (8), and malignant (29) ovarian tumors were studied by in situ hybridization, and in some cases by immunohistochemical analysis. VPF/VEGF protein was also determined by an immunofluorometric assay in cyst fluids obtained from 11 patients, including 7 benign, 2 borderline, and 2 malignant tumors. VPF/VEGF mRNA and protein were expressed by the neoplastic cells in all of the malignant tumors evaluated, with the majority of tumors (28 of 29) showing strong expression of mRNA. Serous borderline tumors had variable VPF/VEGF mRNA expression, with two of six cases showing focal strong expression and four showing low-level expression. No definite expression of VPF/VEGF was seen in two cases of mucinous borderline tumors. No strong expression of VPF/VEGF mRNA was observed in normal ovarian cortex, including surface epithelium, or benign tumors. Substantially higher VPF protein concentrations were detected in cyst fluids of the two malignant (60, 440 pM) and two borderline tumors (210, 590 pM) than in the seven benign serous cysts (mean, 10 +/- 3 pM). In addition, microvascular endothelial cells strongly expressed mRNA of the VPF/VEGF receptors flt-1 and KDR and immunostained for VPF/VEGF protein in the majority of malignant and borderline tumors examined. These findings suggest that VPF/VEGF plays an important role in the angiogenesis associated with ovarian neoplasms.