Cytotoxic chemotherapies are standard of care for patients suffering from advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). However, objective responses are only achieved in 20% of cases and long-term survival is rarely observed. Clinically applied anticancer drugs exert at least some of their activities by inducing apoptosis. A critical step in apoptotic signal transduction is the permeabilization of the mitochondrial outer membrane (MOM), which is regulated by the BCL-2 family of proteins. Hence, therapeutic targeting of BCL-2 proteins is a promising approach to increase the drug-sensitivity of cancers. To this end we have assessed the impact of conditional expression of the proapoptotic multidomain (BH1-2-3) protein BAK, which directly permeabilizes the MOM, and the BH3-mimetic ABT-737, which acts indirectly by derepressing BH1-2-3 proteins, on apoptosis and drug sensitivity of NSCLC cells. Conditionally expressed BAK sensitized resistant NSCLC cells to drug-induced apoptosis. In contrast, ABT-737 was ineffective in those NSCLC cells expressing high levels of the anti-apoptotic MCL-1 protein. Tissue microarray analysis of tumor samples from 84 chemotherapy-naïve NSCLC patients revealed MCL-1 expression in 56% of cases, thus supporting the relevance of this resistance factor in a clinical setting. Enforced expression of the BH3-only protein NOXA, which targets MCL-1, overcame resistance to ABT-737. Moreover, combining conditionally expressed BAK with ABT-737 enhanced apoptosis in NSCLC cells independently of their MCL-1 status. In conclusion, the heterogeneity of apoptosis defects observed in drug-resistant NSCLC demands individually tailored molecular therapies. Targeting the MOM permeabilizer BAK appears to have a broader apoptogenic activity than the BH3-only mimetic ABT-737. © 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.