OBJECTIVES Bone tissue regeneration requires a source of viable, proliferative cells with osteogenic differentiation capacity. Periodontal surgeries represent an opportunity to procure small amounts of autologous tissues for primary cell isolation. Our objective was to assess the potential of human alveolar bone as a source of autologous osteogenic cells for tissue engineering and biomaterials and drug testing studies. MATERIALS AND METHODS Alveolar bone tissue was obtained from 37 patients undergoing routine periodontal surgery. Tissue harvesting and cell isolation procedures were optimized to isolate viable cells. Primary cells were subcultured and characterized with respect to their growth characteristics, gene expression of osteogenic markers, alkaline phosphatase activity and matrix mineralization, under osteogenic stimulation. RESULTS Alveolar bone cells were successfully isolated from 28 of the 30 samples harvested with bone forceps, and from 2 of the 5 samples obtained by bone drilling. The yield of cells in primary cultures was variable between the individual samples, but was not related to the site of tissue harvesting and the patient age. In 80% of samples (n = 5), the primary cells proliferated steadily for eight subsequent passages, reaching cumulative numbers over 10(10) cells. Analyses confirmed stable gene expression of alkaline phosphatase, osteopontin and osteocalcin in early and late cell passages. In osteogenic medium, the cells from late passages increased alkaline phosphatase activity and accumulated mineralized matrix, indicating a mature osteoblastic phenotype. CONCLUSIONS Primary alveolar bone cells exhibited robust proliferation and retained osteogenic phenotype during in vitro expansion, suggesting that they can be used as an autologous cell source for bone regenerative therapies and various in vitro studies.