BACKGROUND: Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is a key regulator of physiologic and pathogenic angiogenesis in diseases such as cancer and diabetic retinopathy. It is known that cysteine proteases from plants, like bromelain and papain are capable to suppress inflammatory activation. Recent studies have demonstrated that they may interfere with angiogenesis related pathways as well. The aim of this study was to investigate the anti-angiogenic effects of papain on human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC) in vitro. METHODS: Cell viability after prolonged treatment with papain was investigated by life cell staining and lactate dehydrogenase release assay. Angiogenic activation was assessed by ELISA against phosphorylated proteins AKT, MEK1/2, ERK1/2, SAPK/JNK and p38-MAPK. Growth inhibition was determined by means of an MTT-assay and cell migration by means of a scratch assay. Capability to form a capillary network was investigated using a tube formation assay. RESULTS: Papain did not induce proteolysis or cell detachment of HUVEC in a concentration range between 0 and 25 µg/mL. Four hours treatment with 10 µg/mL papain resulted in a reduced susceptibility of endothelial cells to activation by VEGF as determined by phosphorylation levels of Akt, MEK1/2, SAPK/JNK. Papain exerted a distinct inhibitory effect on cell growth, cell migration and tube formation with inhibition of tube formation detectable at concentrations as low as 1 µg/mL. Bromelain and ficin displayed similar effects with regard to cell growth and tube formation. CONCLUSION: Papain showed a strong anti-angiogenic effect in VEGF activated HUVEC. This effect may be due to interference with AKT, MEK1/2 and SAPK/JNK phosphorylation. Two other plant derived cysteine proteases displayed similar inhibition of HUVEC cell growth and tube formation. These findings indicate that plant proteolytic enzymes may have potential as preventive and therapeutic agents against angiogenesis related human diseases.