HSP90 inhibitors such as 17AAG have the major therapeutic advantage that they exert downstream inhibitory effects on multiple oncogenic client proteins. They therefore block several mission critical cancer-causing pathways and have the potential to modulate all of the hallmark biological features of malignancy. Consistent with this combinatorial anti-oncogenic profile, 17AAG exhibits broad-spectrum antitumour activity against cultured cancer cell lines and in vivo animal models. However, there are clear differences in sensitivity between various cancer cell lines and it is quite possible that some tumour types or individual patients will be more responsive in the clinic than others. We describe the methods used to investigate the genes and proteins involved in the mechanism of action of HSP90 inhibitors and discuss the significance of these for cellular sensitivity. Methods used involve the conventional cell and molecular biology techniques, together with the more recent application of high throughput global technologies such as gene expression microarrays and proteomics. Selected examples that seem to play a role in sensitivity to HSP90 inhibitors are highlighted and the potential relevance to the response of cancer patients is discussed. Important determinants of response include: 1) Dependence upon key HSP90 client proteins such as ERBB2, steroid hormone receptors and AKT/PKB; 2) Levels of HSP90 family members and co-chaperones, such as HSP70 and AHA1; and 3) expression of various cell cycle and apoptotic regulators. In the case of 17AAG, metabolic enzymes such as NQO1 and membrane efflux pumps are also important for sensitivity.