© 2015, BMJ Publishing Group. All rights reserved. Background: Excessive use of empirical antibiotics is common in critically ill patients. Rapid biomarker-based exclusion of infection may improve antibiotic stewardship in ventilator-acquired pneumonia (VAP). However, successful validation of the usefulness of potential markers in this setting is exceptionally rare. Objectives: We sought to validate the capacity for specific host inflammatory mediators to exclude pneumonia in patients with suspected VAP. Methods: A prospective, multicentre, validation study of patients with suspected VAP was conducted in 12 intensive care units. VAP was confirmed following bronchoscopy by culture of a potential pathogen in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) at >104 colony forming units per millilitre (cfu/mL). Interleukin-1 beta (IL-1β), IL-8, matrix metalloproteinase-8 (MMP-8), MMP-9 and human neutrophil elastase (HNE) were quantified in BALF. Diagnostic utility was determined for biomarkers individually and in combination. Results: Paired BALF culture and biomarker results were available for 150 patients. 53 patients (35%) had VAP and 97 (65%) patients formed the non-VAP group. All biomarkers were significantly higher in the VAP group (p<0.001). The area under the receiver operator characteristic curve for IL-1β was 0.81; IL-8, 0.74; MMP-8, 0.76; MMP-9, 0.79 and HNE, 0.78. A combination of IL-1β and IL-8, at the optimal cut-point, excluded VAP with a sensitivity of 100%, a specificity of 44.3% and a post-test probability of 0% (95% CI 0% to 9.2%). Conclusions: Low BALF IL-1β in combination with IL-8 confidently excludes VAP and could form a rapid biomarker-based rule-out test, with the potential to improve antibiotic stewardship.