Primary liver cancer is one of the highly malignant tumours. The traditional surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy only established 6% of 5-year survival rate in HCC (hepatocellular carcinoma). Therefore there is an urgent need to develop new therapeutic strategies. HSP90 (heat shock protein 90) is one of the important molecular chaperones and was identified with high expression in the primary liver cancer. In this study, we evaluated the therapeutic effect of specific HSP90 inhibitor 17-DMAG (17-dimethylaminoethylamino-17-demethoxy geldanamycin) in HCC cells. The time and concentration effects of 17-DMAG were investigated in HCC cells. Cell proliferation was measured by MTT [3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyl-2H-tetrazolium bromide] assay and cell counting. Apoptosis was detected by flow cytometry with staining of Annexin V-FITC/PI (propidium iodide). The protein levels of survivin, cyclin D1, p53 and NF-κB (nuclear factor κB) were measured by Western blotting. 17-DMAG inhibited the proliferation of HCC cells in a time- and concentration-dependent manner. Treatment with 400 nmol/l 17-DMAG for 48 h significantly induced early-stage apoptosis (22.4%). Conversely, it induced less late-stage apoptosis (3.03%). The 5 mg/l of cisplatin induced significantly less early-stage apoptosis (6.5%), but similar proportion of late-stage apoptosis (4.89%) compared with 17-DMAG. Inhibition of HSP90 activity by 400 nmol/l 17-DMAG decreased protein levels of survivin, cyclin D1 and NF-κB protein levels, whereas increased p53 protein level. HSP90 plays a key role in HCC cell growth and survival through regulation of survivin, cyclin D1, p53 and nucleus NF-κB protein levels and the specific HSP90 inhibitor 17-DMAG can play a therapeutic role in HCC treatment.