The lens is an avascular tissue, separated from the aqueous and vitreous humors by its own extracellular matrix, the lens capsule. Here we demonstrate that the lens capsule is a source of essential survival factors for lens epithelial cells. Primary and immortalized lens epithelial cells survive in low levels of serum and are resistant to staurosporine-induced apoptosis when they remain in contact with the lens capsule. Physical contact with the capsule is required for maximal resistance to stress. The lens capsule is also a source of soluble factors including fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF-2) and perlecan, an extracellular matrix component that enhances FGF-2 activity. Matrix metalloproteinase 2 (MMP-2) inhibition as well as MMP-2 pretreatment of lens capsules greatly reduced the protective effect of the lens capsule, although this could be largely reversed by the addition of either conditioned medium or recombinant FGF-2. These data suggest that FGF-2 release from the lens capsule by MMP-2 is essential to lens epithelial cell viability and survival.