The alpha/beta-heterodimeric transcription factor hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) functions when the oxygen level in tissues is low, i.e. when the tissue microenvironment becomes hypoxic, and is non-functional when the level of oxygen is high. Certain pathophysiological conditions such as ischemic disorders and cancer encounter low levels of local tissue oxygenation due to a defective or insufficient vasculature. Highly proliferating tumour cells rapidly form into a mass that becomes located too far from the vasculature to be nourished and oxygenated. Under such conditions HIF activates or represses a vast array of genes that in particular, initiate the formation of new blood vessels and modify metabolism. In this way the tumour mass re-establishes conditions favourable for further proliferation. Interest is being expressed in the direct repression or stimulation of HIF activity, respectively, in the treatment of cancer and of ischemic disorders. The modulation of other HIF-target genes implicated, in particular, in tumour metabolism and intracellular pH control may also prove to be useful in cancer therapy. However, before going further a better understanding of the basics of the HIF signalling pathway is essential. This review will introduce the reader to the molecular mechanisms that regulate HIF and some of the biological consequences of its action, in particular in tumour metabolism, growth and invasion. Approaches to either enforce tumour regression or increase blood vessel formation through the targeting of HIF or its downstream effectors will also be discussed.