The interferons are natural glycoproteins secreted in response to various stimuli, including viral infection. They have antiviral, antiproliferative and immunomodulatory effects on different target cell populations. Since recombinant human interferons have become available, they have been tested in a wide range of malignancies. They are well established in the treatment of hairy cell leukaemia, chronic myelogenous leukaemia and multiple myeloma. Although they have documented activity against lymphoma, melanoma, renal cell cancer and carcinoid tumours, their role in the treatment of these tumours is less clear. In the common solid tumours, such as lung cancer and colorectal cancer, the use of interferons remains experimental. Here we will summarise their practice applications in oncology, using randomised studies where available to establish their place in multi-modality treatment. We will not discuss their use as antiviral or immunomodulating agents in viral and autoimmune diseases, multiple sclerosis or after organ transplantation.