Bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) reduce acute lung injury in animals challenged by bleomycin or bacterial lipopolysaccaride. It is not known, however, whether MSCs protect from ventilator-induced lung injury (VILI). This study investigated whether MSCs have a potential role in preventing or modulating VILI in healthy rats subjected to high-volume ventilation. 24 Sprague-Dawley rats (250-300 g) were subjected to high-volume mechanical ventilation (25 mL.kg(-1)). MSCs (5 x 10(6)) were intravenously or intratracheally administered (n=8 each) 30 min before starting over-ventilation and eight rats were MSC-untreated. Spontaneously breathing anesthetised rats (n=8) served as controls. After 3 h of over-ventilation or control the animals were sacrificed and lung tissue and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) were sampled for further analysis. When compared with controls, MSC-untreated over-ventilated rats exhibited typical VILI features. Lung oedema, histological lung injury index, concentrations of total protein, interleukin-1 beta, macrophage inflammatory protein-2 and number of neutrophils in BALF and vascular cell adhesion protein-1 in lung tissue significantly increased in over-ventilated rats. All these indices of VILI moved significantly towards normalisation in the rats treated with MSCs, whether intravenously or intratracheally. Both local and systemic pre-treatment with MSCs reduced VILI in a rat model.