Background Human renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is very resistant to chemotherapy. ABT-737 is a novel inhibitor of anti-apoptotic proteins of the Bcl-2 family that has shown promise in various preclinical tumour models. Results We here report a strong over-additive pro-apoptotic effect of ABT-737 and etoposide, vinblastine or paclitaxel but not 5-fluorouracil in cell lines from human RCC. ABT-737 showed very little activity as a single agent but killed RCC cells potently when anti-apoptotic Mcl-1 or, unexpectedly, A1 was targeted by RNAi. This potent augmentation required endogenous Noxa protein since RNAi directed against Noxa but not against Bim or Puma reduced apoptosis induction by the combination of ABT-737 and etoposide or vinblastine. At the level of mitochondria, etoposide-treatment had a similar sensitizing activity and allowed for ABT-737-induced release of cytochrome c. Conclusions Chemotherapeutic drugs can overcome protection afforded by Mcl-1 and A1 through endogenous Noxa protein in RCC cells, and the combination of such drugs with ABT-737 may be a promising strategy in RCC. Strikingly, A1 emerged in RCC cell lines as a protein of similar importance as the well-established Mcl-1 in protection against apoptosis in these cells.