Programmed cell death (apoptosis) is a normal process by which cells are eliminated during normal embryonic development and in adult life. Disruption of this normal process resulting in illegitimate cell survival can cause developmental abnormalities and facilitate cancer development. Normal cells require certain viability factors and undergo programmed cell death when these factors are withdrawn. The viability factors are required throughout the differentiation process from immature to mature cells. Although many viability factors are also growth factors, viability and growth are separately regulated. Viability factors can have clinical value in decreasing the loss of normal cells including the loss that occurs after irradiation, exposure to other cytotoxic agents or virus infection including AIDS. There is no evidence that occurs after irradiation, exposure to other cytotoxic agents or virus infection including AIDS. There is no evidence that cancer cells are immortal. Programmed cell death can be induced in leukemic cells by removal of viability factors, by cytotoxic therapeutic agents, or by the tumor-suppressor gene wild-type p53. All these forms of induction of programmed cell death in leukemic cells can be suppressed by the same viability factors that suppress programmed cell death in normal cells. A tumor-promoting phorbol ester can also suppress this death program. The induction of programmed cell death can be enhanced by deregulated expression of the gene c-myc and suppressed by the gene bcl-2. Mutant p53 and bcl-2 suppress the enhancing effect on cell death of deregulated c-myc, and thus allow induction of cell proliferation and inhibition of differentiation which are other functions of deregulated c-myc. The suppression of cell death by mutant p53 and bcl-2 increases the probability of developing cancer. The suppression of programmed cell death in cancer cells by viability factors suggests that decreasing the level of these factors may increase the effectiveness of cytotoxic cancer therapy. Treatments that downregulate the expression or activity of mutant p53 and bcl-2 in cancer cells should also be useful for therapy.