Endocrine and exocrine pancreatic morphogenesis is known to occur from ductal epithelium, but the factors that regulate this process are unknown. Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF)/vascular permeability factor has recently been reported to affect fetal islet ontogenesis. VEGF is an angiogenic factor with a growth-promoting effect that is thought to be restricted to vascular endothelial cells. We demonstrated that VEGF is also a mitogen for adult rat pancreatic duct epithelial cells in primary culture. VEGF supplementation to a serum-free culture medium increased the 5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine-pulse labeling index of ductal cells more than 2-fold. Immunohistochemical staining and protein blots revealed that pancreatic duct cells express fetal liver kinase-1 high-affinity receptors for VEGF. In pancreatic tissue, immunohistochemistry shows that VEGF peptide is expressed in normal pancreatic islet cells. In duct ligation-induced acute pancreatitis, numerous inflammatory leukocytes containing VEGF were seen to infiltrate between hyperplastic ducts. In the latter model, islet neogenesis has previously been observed. Our data indicate the possibility that VEGF plays a role in the paracrine regulation of ductal growth and differentiation in vivo, eg, in pancreatitis. In vitro, however, VEGF did not induce endocrine differentiation of ductal cells, indicating that it is not the only factor required for the activation of islet neogenesis.