Cancer cells silence autosomal tumor suppressor genes by Knudson's two-hit mechanism in which loss-of-function mutations and then loss of heterozygosity occur at the tumor suppressor gene loci. However, the identification of X-linked tumor suppressor genes has challenged the traditional theory of 'two-hit inactivation' in tumor suppressor genes, introducing the novel concept that a single genetic hit can cause loss of tumor suppressor function. The mechanism through which these genes are silenced in human cancer is unclear, but elucidating the details will greatly enhance our understanding of the pathogenesis of human cancer. Here, we review the identification of X-linked tumor suppressor genes and discuss the potential mechanisms of their inactivation. In addition, we also discuss how the identification of X-linked tumor suppressor genes can potentially lead to new approaches in cancer therapy. © 2012 Future Medicine Ltd.