Heparan sulphates, the N-sulphated polysaccharides components of proteoglycans, are common constituents of cell surfaces and the extracellular matrix. The heparan sulphate polysaccharide chain has a unique molecular design in the which the clusters of N- and O-sulphated sugar residues, separated by regions of low sulphation, determine specific protein binding properties. The heparan sulphate chains are attached to various protein cores, which determine the location of the proteoglycan in the cell membrane and extracellular matrix. The diverse functions of heparan sulphate, which range from the control of blood coagulation to the regulation of cell growth and adhesion, depend on the capacity of the chains to activate protein ligands, such as antithrombin III and members of the fibroblast growth factor family. These properties are currently being exploited in the development of synthetic heparan sulphates as anticoagulants and promoters of wound healing. Conversely organic mimics of growth factor activating saccharides could possibly be designed to suppress tumour growth and prevent restenosis after coronary vessel angioplasty.