Circulating endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs) play a key role in the maintenance of endothelial homoeostasis and promote vascular repair. They may also be of predictive value for cardiovascular events. Reduced EPC number and functional activity have been associated with several cardiovascular risk factors, but their relationship with hypertension remains unclear. The objective of this study was to investigate if number and function of circulating EPCs are reduced in patients with refractory hypertension (RHT). Circulating EPCs (CD34+CD133+/CD45+) were isolated from peripheral blood by flow cytometry in 39 RHT and 30 normotensive controls. EPC number was also determined in vitro after 7 days in culture. After age adjustment, EPC concentration was significantly reduced in RHT as compared with controls (mean (95% CI), 33.8 (18.1-49.6) vs 69.1 (50.7-87.5) EPCs per 105 peripheral mononuclear cells (MNCs), respectively; P=0.014). After in vitro culture, EPCs were also reduced in patients as compared with controls (mean (95% CI), 142.3 (49.5-235.0) vs 611.0 (480.2-741.8) EPCs per field, respectively, P<0.001). In multiple linear regression analysis, circulating EPCs were significantly reduced by 56.3% in RHT as compared with control (P=0.006), independently of all other known risk factors. Moreover, RHT had a high independent predictive value for lower EPC proliferation. The number of EPCs per field was reduced by 76.7% in RHT with respect to controls (P<0.001). In summary, the number of circulating EPCs after culture is reduced in patients with RHT, which may be related to the increased rate of endothelial dysfunction, atherosclerotic disease and cardiovascular events observed in this population.