The inhibitor of apoptosis (IAP) genes constitute a highly conserved family found in organisms as diverse as insects and mammals. These genes encode proteins that directly bind and inhibit caspases, and thus play a critical role in deciding cell fate. The IAPs are in turn regulated by endogenous proteins (second mitochondrial activator of caspases and Omi) that are released from the mitochondria during apoptosis. Overexpression of the IAPs, particularly the X-chromosome-linked IAP, has been shown to be protective in a variety of experimental animal models of human neurodegenerative diseases. Furthermore, overexpression of one or more of the IAPs in cancer cell lines and primary tumor samples appears to be a frequent event. IAP gene amplification and translocation events provide genetic evidence that further strengthens the case for classifying the IAPs as oncogenes. Therapeutic strategies that interfere with IAP expression or function are under investigation as an adjuvant to conventional chemotherapy- and radiation-based cancer therapy. This paper reviews the structure and function of the IAP family members and their inhibitors, and surveys the available evidence for IAP dysregulation in cancer.