Acute renal failure is a life threatening illness whose mortality has remained high since the introduction of hemodialysis 25 years ago, despite advances in supportive care. Acute renal failure is an extremely morbid and costly disorder with a significant proportion of patients progressing to end-stage renal disease requiring dialysis. To the nephrologist, acute renal failure remains an extremely frustrating disease, because the pathophysiology is not well understood and the limited therapeutic options force the nephrologist to sit on the sidelines and wait for renal function to return. For example, dialysis remains the only FDA-approved treatment for acute renal failure, but dialysis may also cause renal injury that prolongs renal failure. The purpose of this perspective is to understand the results of the recent, largely negative, clinical trials in view of recent advances in the epidemiology of ARF. This review will also discuss diagnostic tools, strategies for improved design of clinical trials, and other therapeutic interventions that will be needed to properly treat acute renal failure in the 21st century.