The human adrenal cortex has a complex vasculature that is essential for growth, organ maintenance, and access of secreted hormones to the circulation. Growth and function of the adrenal cortex are regulated by corticotropin (ACTH), the actions of which are in part mediated by locally produced growth factors. As cortical growth and vascularization must increase in a coordinated manner, we hypothesized that ACTH also influences adrenal cortical angiogenesis by stimulating the local expression of specific angiogenic factors. Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is a potent endothelial cell-specific angiogenic peptide, the expression of which has been detected in adrenal cortical cells. Therefore, we examined the localization of VEGF expression in the midgestation (16-20 weeks) human fetal adrenal cortex and determined whether VEGF expression and secretion by isolated human fetal adrenal cortical cells are regulated by ACTH. By immunohistochemical analysis, strong cytoplasmic staining for VEGF was detected in scattered clusters of fetal zone (inner cortical compartment) cells. In contrast, cells in the outer, definitive zone of the cortex stained only weakly for VEGF. The predominant staining for VEGF in the fetal zone correlated with the extensive vasculature of this zone as detected by immunohistochemical staining for von Willebrand factor, which is specific for endothelial cells. In primary cultures of human fetal adrenal cortical cells, ACTH (1 nmol/L) and forskolin (10 micromol/L) increased the abundance of messenger ribonucleic acid transcripts encoding VEGF, as assessed by Northern and slot blot analyses. The stimulatory effect of ACTH and forskolin on VEGF gene expression occurred within 2 h of agonist exposure and persisted for at least 24 h. ACTH and forskolin also increased VEGF protein secretion by fetal adrenal cortical cells, as assessed by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay for VEGF in fetal adrenal cortical cell-conditioned medium. A significant (P < 0.05) increase in VEGF secretion was detected as early as 8 h after ACTH or forskolin treatment. By 24 h after the addition of ACTH or forskolin, VEGF secreted from isolated human fetal adrenal cells was increased 5- to 6-fold. These data demonstrate that the human fetal adrenal cortex, particularly the cells of the inner fetal zone, express VEGF and that VEGF expression and secretion by these cells are directly regulated by ACTH and the activation of adenylate cyclase. Thus, VEGF may be a local regulator of adrenal cortical angiogenesis and an important mediator of the tropic action of ACTH, ensuring the coordination of ACTH-stimulated cortical growth and vascularization.