Initiation of translation in eukaryotic cells can occur by two distinct mechanisms, cap-dependent scanning and internal ribosome entry. The latter mechanism requires the formation of a complex RNA structural element termed an internal ribosome entry segment (IRES). IRESs are located in the 5' untranslated region of the message, and in the presence of trans-acting factors allow the ribosome to be recruited to a site that is a considerable distance from the cap structure. Many cellular mRNAs have now been shown to contain IRESs and it is likely that up to 10% of all mRNAs have the capability to initiate translation by this mechanism. The majority of IRESs that have been identified thus far are found in mRNAs whose protein products are associated with the control of cell growth and cell death, including many growth factors, proto-oncogenes and proteins required for apoptosis. In this review, we discuss the cellular situations when IRESs are required, the trans-acting factors that are necessary for IRES function and deregulation of IRES-mediated translation in tumorigenesis.