Survival and proliferation of endothelial cells requires both growth factors and an appropriate extracellular matrix to which cells can attach. In the absence of either, endothelial cells rapidly undergo apoptosis. Thus, when human microvascular endothelial cells (HDMEC) are plated on a hydrophobic surface such as untreated polystyrene, they rapidly undergo apoptosis and die. The present study demonstrates that vascular permeability factor/vascular endothelial growth factor (VPF/VEGF), an endothelial cell-selective cytokine, inhibits apoptosis of HDMEC cultured on untreated polystyrene and induces these cells to adhere, spread, and proliferate. VPF/VEGF-induced HDMEC adhesion was time-dependent, required de novo protein synthesis, and was inhibited by a soluble RGD peptide but not by an inhibitor of collagen synthesis. Under the conditions of these experiments, VPF/VEGF downregulated expression of collagen IV and fibronectin but did not change collagen I mRNA levels. VPF/VEGF-induced HDMEC adhesion was inhibited by antibodies to alpha(v)beta5 and vitronectin but not by antibodies to alpha(v)beta3. Other endothelial growth factors and cytokines such as bFGF, HGF, and TGFbeta did not reproduce the VPF/VEGF effect. We suggest that VPF/VEGF induces endothelial cells to deposit a scaffolding (likely involving vitronectin) that allows them to attach to and proliferate on an otherwise nonsupportive surface (hydrophobic polystyrene) and in this manner serves as both a survival factor and a growth factor.