Biomaterials and, especially, scaffolds may function as temporary extracellular matrix (ECM), mimicking in vivo environmental structures and facilitating cell growth and tissue regeneration. ECM is composed mostly of glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) and proteins, the ratio of GAGs, hyaluronic acid (HA):sulphated GAGs (sGAGs) being characteristic of each type of tissue. Umbilical cord (UC) and particularly Wharton's jelly (WJ) have been proposed as good sources for obtaining GAGs. In this work, we present a novel methodology for the extraction, purification and separation of GAGs from UC obtained from two different species, human and pig. The new methodology is based on enzymatic digestion of WJ, precipitation of GAGs with organic solvents, purification steps and chromatographic separation of GAGs using ion exchange columns. This novel process allows highly purified HA and sGAGs to be obtained from human and pig WJ. The composition of sGAGs and molecular weight of HA were very similar in the two species and GAGs are haemocompatible and non-cytotoxic. Finally, these new biomaterials have significant bioactive properties, increasing proliferation rates of two cell lines, human adipose mesenchymal stem cells (ASCs) and fibroblasts. In summary, the separation of HA and sGAGs, linked to the improvement in the GAG quantification method described in this paper, opens new avenues for the formulation of natural biomaterials with various ratios of GAGs, mimicking tissue matrix for different tissue-engineering applications. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.