We investigated the mRNA expression levels of all six antiapoptotic Bcl-2 subfamily members in 68 human cancer cell lines using qPCR techniques and measured the ability of known Bcl-2 inhibitors to induce cell death in 36 of the studied tumor cell lines. Our study reveals that Mcl-1 represents the anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 subfamily member with the highest mRNA levels in the lung, prostate, breast, ovarian, renal, and glioma cancer cell lines. In leukemia/lymphoma and melanoma cancer cell lines, Bcl-2 and Bfl-1 had the highest levels of mRNA, respectively. The observed correlation between the cell killing properties of known Bcl-2 inhibitors and the relative mRNA expression levels of anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 proteins provide critical insights into apoptosis-based anticancer strategies that target Bcl-2 proteins. Our data may explain current challenges of selective Bcl-2 inhibitors in the clinic, given that severe expression of Bcl-2 seems to be limited to leukemia cell lines. Furthermore, our data suggest that in most cancer types a strategy targeted to Mcl-1 inhibition, or combination of Bfl-1 and Mcl-1 inhibition for melanoma, may prove to be more successful than therapies targeting only Bcl-2. © 2010 Macmillan Publishers Limited.