Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is a hypoxia-inducible angiogenic factor, which is known to be upregulated in most cases of glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). The expression of VEGF and its receptors in ependymomas, oligodendrogliomas, and particularly the expression during anaplastic progression of these three types of gliomas has not been studied extensively. Fifty-six gliomas, consisting of 10 ependymomas, 12 oligodendrogliomas, 3 anaplastic oligodendrogliomas, 6 astrocytomas grade II, 5 anaplastic astrocytomas, and 20 glioblastoma multiformes, were investigated for VEGF and receptor expression using in situ hybridization (ISH) and reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). Results showed that VEGF was moderately to strongly expressed in 8 of 10 ependymomas and in all anaplastic oligodendrogliomas and glioblastoma multiforme cases. These tumors displayed similar degrees of extensive necrosis and vascular proliferation, with VEGF expression consistently seen in tumor cells around necrotic areas. The VEGF expression, although present at a lower level, also was shown in 4 of 12 oligodendrogliomas, in 3 of 6 astrocytomas grade II, and in 2 of 5 anaplastic astrocytomas, with a regional rather than diffuse pattern of positive result. The findings from the in situ hybridization study correlated with the expression index, as determined by reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction. Expression of VEGF was correlated significantly with vascular proliferation (p < 10(-5)) and necrosis (p < 10(-5)), as well as with microvessel density (p = 0.002, rs = 0.41). The VEGF receptors, kinase domain region (KDR) and Fms-like-tyrosine kinase (Flt-1), also were upregulated in the tumor vasculature of glioblastoma multiforme, anaplastic oligodendrogliomas, and ependymomas with necrosis, whereas the astrocytomas grade II, anaplastic astrocytomas, and oligodendroglioma tumors tended to express a weak to nondetectable signal. Anaplastic progression in all three types of gliomas is heralded by the occurrence of small zones of VEGF-expressing cells and early vascular proliferation, followed by an accelerated phase of angiogenesis closely associated with VEGF induction around areas of necrosis and with the expression of VEGF receptors in the tumor vasculature.