Tumor suppressor p53 is a transcription factor that regulates a large number of genes and guards against genomic instability. Under multiple cellular stress conditions, p53 functions to block cell cycle progression transiently unless proper DNA repair occurs. Failure of DNA repair mechanisms leads to p53-mediated induction of cell death programs. p53 also induces permanent cell cycle arrest known as cellular senescence. During neoplastic progression, p53 is often mutated and fails to efficiently perform these functions. It has been observed that cancers carrying a wild-type p53 may also have interrupted downstream p53 regulatory signaling leading to disruption in p53 functions. Therefore, strategies to reactivate p53 provide an attractive approach for blocking tumor pathogenesis and its progression. p53 activation may also lead to regression of existing early neoplastic lesions and therefore may be important in developing cancer chemoprevention protocols. A large number of small molecules capable of reactivating p53 have been developed and some are progressing through clinical trials for prospective human applications. However, several questions remain to be answered at this stage. For example, it is not certain if pharmacological activation of p53 will restore all of its multifaceted biological responses, assuming that the targeted cell is not killed following p53 activation. It remains to be demonstrated whether the distinct biological effects regulated by specific post-translationally modified p53 can effectively be restored by refolding mutant p53. Mutant p53 can be classified as a loss-of-function or gain-of-function protein depending on the type of mutation. It is also unclear whether reactivation of mutant p53 has similar consequences in cells carrying gain-of-function and loss-of-function p53 mutants. This review provides a description of various pharmacological approaches tested to activate p53 (both wild-type and mutant) and to assess the effects of activated p53 on neoplastic progression. © 2011 Bentham Science Publishers Ltd.