Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is abundant in synovium and synovial fluids, where it probably contributes to vascular permeability and angiogenesis in arthritic joints. To investigate the probable sources of VEGF in synovium, we compared the ability of several cytokines (TGF-beta, platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF), IL-1, tumour necrosis factor (TNF), basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) that are associated with arthritis and angiogenesis, to stimulate secretion of VEGF protein by human synovial fibroblasts. TGF-beta was the strongest inducer of VEGF secretion; six times more VEGF was secreted when cells were stimulated by TGF-beta than when stimulated by PDGF or IL-1 for 24 h. TNF-alpha and bFGF did not stimulate any secretion of VEGF. The stimulatory effects of TGF-beta and IL-1 on VEGF secretion were additive. Hypoxic culture alone also stimulated VEGF secretion, but more importantly, hypoxic culture conditions doubled the rate of VEGF secretion stimulated by the cytokines TGF-beta and IL-1. When dermal and synovial fibroblasts were stimulated identically by hypoxia and cytokines (TGF-beta and IL-1), synovial fibroblasts secreted four times more VEGF than did dermal fibroblasts. Thus in rheumatoid arthritis, the capacity of synovial fibroblasts in the hypoxic environment to secrete large amounts of VEGF in response to cytokines such as TGF-beta probably contributes significantly to angiogenesis in the synovium.