Background Human mesenchymal stem/stromal cells (hMSCs) represent a promising therapeutic strategy for ventilator-induced lung injury (VILI) and acute respiratory distress syndrome. Translational challenges include restoring hMSC efficacy following cryopreservation, developing effective xenogeneic-free (XF) hMSCs and establishing true therapeutic potential at a clinically relevant time point of administration. We wished to determine whether cytokine pre-activation of cryopreserved, bone marrow-derived XF-hMSCs would enhance their capacity to facilitate injury resolution following VILI and elucidate mechanisms of action. Methods Initially, in vitro studies examined the potential for the secretome from cytokine pre-activated XF-hMSCs to attenuate pulmonary epithelial injury induced by cyclic mechanical stretch. Later, anaesthetised rats underwent VILI and, 6 h following injury, were randomized to receive 1 x 10(7) XF-hMSC/kg that were (i) naive fresh, (ii) naive cryopreserved, (iii) cytokine pre-activated fresh or (iv) cytokine pre-activated cryopreserved, while control animals received (v) vehicle. The extent of injury resolution was measured at 24 h after injury. Finally, the role of keratinocyte growth factor (KGF) in mediating the effect of pre-activated XF-hMSCs was determined in a pulmonary epithelial wound repair model. Results Pre-activation enhanced the capacity of the XF-hMSC secretome to decrease stretch-induced pulmonary epithelial inflammation and injury. Both pre-activated fresh and cryopreserved XF-hMSCs enhanced resolution of injury following VILI, restoring oxygenation, improving lung compliance, reducing lung leak and improving resolution of lung structural injury. Finally, the secretome of pre-activated XF-hMSCs enhanced epithelial wound repair, in part via a KGF-dependent mechanism. Conclusions Cytokine pre-activation enhanced the capacity of cryopreserved, XF-hMSCs to promote injury resolution following VILI, potentially via a KGF-dependent mechanism.