PURPOSE: Epiretinal fibrovascular membranes (FVMs) are a hallmark of proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR). Surgical removal of FVMs is often indicated to treat tractional retinal detachment. This potentially informative pathological tissue is usually disposed of after surgery without further examination. We developed a method for isolating and characterizing cells derived from FVMs and correlated their expression of specific markers in culture with that in tissue. METHODS: FVMs were obtained from 11 patients with PDR during diabetic vitrectomy surgery and were analyzed with electron microscopy (EM), comparative genomic hybridization (CGH), immunohistochemistry, and/or digested with collagenase II for cell isolation and culture. Antibody arrays and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) were used to profile secreted angiogenesis-related proteins in cell culture supernatants. RESULTS: EM analysis of the FVMs showed abnormal vessels composed of endothelial cells with large nuclei and plasma membrane infoldings, loosely attached perivascular cells, and stromal cells. The cellular constituents of the FVMs lacked major chromosomal aberrations as shown with CGH. Cells derived from FVMs (C-FVMs) could be isolated and maintained in culture. The C-FVMs retained the expression of markers of cell identity in primary culture, which define specific cell populations including CD31-positive, alpha-smooth muscle actin-positive (SMA), and glial fibrillary acidic protein-positive (GFAP) cells. In primary culture, secretion of angiopoietin-1 and thrombospondin-1 was significantly decreased in culture conditions that resemble a diabetic environment in SMA-positive C-FVMs compared to human retinal pericytes derived from a non-diabetic donor. CONCLUSIONS: C-FVMs obtained from individuals with PDR can be isolated, cultured, and profiled in vitro and may constitute a unique resource for the discovery of cell signaling mechanisms underlying PDR that extends beyond current animal and cell culture models.