Many anticancer agents induce an active cell death process, apoptosis, in sensitive tumour cells. Elucidation of molecular mechanisms underlying apoptosis may shed light on why some tumour cells survive chemotherapy, and may identify new targets for anticancer agents whose effects are not tightly linked to proliferative status. The signal transduction events which initiate apoptosis are unclear. A change in cytosolic calcium is generally assumed to be a key signal for apoptosis although the evidence for this is not conclusive. Other putative signal transducers which may modulate apoptosis are protein kinase C and cAMP. Genes which induce apoptosis in response to such signals are largely unidentified, but certain oncogenes, notably bcl-2, act to delay or suppress apoptosis in several cell types.