Severe acute renal failure (ARF) remains a common, largely treatment-resistant clinical problem with disturbingly high mortality rates. Therefore, we tested whether administration of multipotent mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) to anesthetized rats with ischemia-reperfusion-induced ARF (40-min bilateral renal pedicle clamping) could improve the outcome through amelioration of inflammatory, vascular, and apoptotic/necrotic manifestations of ischemic kidney injury. Accordingly, intracarotid administration of MSC (approximately 10(6)/animal) either immediately or 24 h after renal ischemia resulted in significantly improved renal function, higher proliferative and lower apoptotic indexes, as well as lower renal injury and unchanged leukocyte infiltration scores. Such renoprotection was not obtained with syngeneic fibroblasts. Using in vivo two-photon laser confocal microscopy, fluorescence-labeled MSC were detected early after injection in glomeruli, and low numbers attached at microvasculature sites. However, within 3 days of administration, none of the administered MSC had differentiated into a tubular or endothelial cell phenotype. At 24 h after injury, expression of proinflammatory cytokines IL-1beta, TNF-alpha, IFN-gamma, and inducible nitric oxide synthase was significantly reduced and that of anti-inflammatory IL-10 and bFGF, TGF-alpha, and Bcl-2 was highly upregulated in treated kidneys. We conclude that the early, highly significant renoprotection obtained with MSC is of considerable therapeutic promise for the cell-based management of clinical ARF. The beneficial effects of MSC are primarily mediated via complex paracrine actions and not by their differentiation into target cells, which, as such, appears to be a more protracted response that may become important in late-stage organ repair.