Gum resin extracts of Boswellia species have been traditionally applied in folk medicine for centuries to treat various chronic inflammatory diseases, and experimental data from animal models and studies with human subjects confirmed the potential of B. spec extracts for the treatment of not only inflammation but also of cancer. Analysis of the ingredients of these extracts revealed that the pentacyclic triterpenes boswellic acids (BAs) possess biological activities and appear to be responsible for the respective pharmacological actions. Approaches in order to elucidate the molecular mechanisms underlying the biological effects of BAs identified 5-lipoxygenase, human leukocyte elastase, toposiomerase I and II, as well as IkappaB kinases as molecular targets of BAs. Moreover, it was shown that depending on the cell type and the structure of the BAs, the compounds differentially interfere with signal transduction pathways including Ca(2+/-) and MAPK signaling in various blood cells, related to functional cellular processes important for inflammatory reactions and tumor growth. This review summarizes the biological actions of BAs on the cellular and molecular level and attempts to put the data into perspective of the beneficial effects manifested in animal studies and trials with human subjects related to inflammation and cancer.