Tumour radioresistance is a major problem for cancer radiation therapy. To identify the underlying mechanisms of this resistance, we used human non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cell lines and focused on the Inhibitor of Apoptosis Protein (IAP) family, which contributes to tumourigenesis and chemoresistance. We investigated the possible correlation between radioresistance in six NSCLC cell lines and IAP protein levels and tested the radiosensitizing effect of birinapant in vitro, a molecule that mimics the second mitochondria-derived activator of caspase. We found that birinapant-induced apoptosis and inhibited the proliferation of NSCLC cells after exposure to radiation. These effects were induced by birinapant downregulation of cIAP protein levels and changes of cIAP gene expression. Overall, birinapant can inhibit tumour growth of NSCLC cell lines to ironizing radiation and act as a promising strategy to overcome radioresistance in NSCLC. © 2021 The Authors. Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine published by Foundation for Cellular and Molecular Medicine and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.