Vascular permeability factor (VPF) is a highly conserved 34-42-kD protein secreted by many tumor cells. Among the most potent vascular permeability-enhancing factors known, VPF is also a selective vascular endothelial cell mitogen, and therefore has been called vascular endothelial cell growth factor (VEGF). Our goal was to define the cellular sites of VPF (VEGF) synthesis and accumulation in tumors in vivo. Immunohistochemical studies were performed on solid and ascites guinea pig line 1 and line 10 bile duct carcinomas using antibodies directed against peptides synthesized to represent the NH2-terminal and internal sequences of VPF. These antibodies stained tumor cells and, uniformly and most intensely, the endothelium of immediately adjacent blood vessels, both preexisting and those newly induced by tumor angiogenesis. A similar pattern of VPF staining was observed in autochthonous human lymphoma. In situ hybridization demonstrated VPF mRNA in nearly all line 10 tumor cells but not in tumor blood vessels, indicating that immunohistochemical labeling of tumor vessels with antibodies to VPF peptides reflects uptake of VPF, not endogenous synthesis. VPF protein staining was evident in adjacent preexisting venules and small veins as early as 5 h after tumor transplant and plateaued at maximally intense levels in newly induced tumor vessels by approximately 5 d. VPF-stained vessels were also hyperpermeable to macromolecules as judged by their capacity to accumulate circulating colloidal carbon. In contrast, vessels more than approximately 0.5 mm distant from tumors were not hyperpermeable and did not exhibit immunohistochemical staining for VPF. Vessel staining disappeared within 24-48 h of tumor rejection. These studies indicate that VPF is synthesized by tumor cells in vivo and accumulates in nearby blood vessels, its target of action. Because leaky tumor vessels initiate a cascade of events, which include plasma extravasation and which lead ultimately to angiogenesis and tumor stroma formation, VPF may have a pivotal role in promoting tumor growth. Also, VPF immunostaining provides a new marker for tumor blood vessels that may be exploitable for tumor imaging or therapy.