Due to their strong apoptosis-inducing capacity, the death receptor ligands CD95L, TNF and TRAIL have been widely viewed as potential cancer therapeutics. While clinical data with CD95L and TRAIL are not yet available, TNF is a registered drug, albeit only for loco-regional application in a limited number of indications. The TNF experience has told us that specific delivery and restricted action is a major challenge in the development of multifunctional, pleiotropically acting cytokines into effective cancer therapeutics. Thus, gene-therapeutic approaches and new cytokine variants have been designed over the last 10 years with the aim of increasing anti-tumoral activity and reducing systemic side effects. Here, we present our current view of the therapeutic potential of the death receptor ligands TNF, CD95L and TRAIL and of the progress made towards improving their efficacy by tumor targeting, use of gene therapy and genetic engineering. Results generated with newly designed fusion proteins suggest that enhanced tumor-directed activity and prevention of undesirable actions of death receptor ligands is possible, thereby opening up a useful therapeutic window for all of the death receptor ligands, including CD95L.