PURPOSE OF REVIEW To present and interpret data from recent clinical studies (July 2002-August 2003) of strategies to control the inflammatory response after cardiac surgery. RECENT FINDINGS Off-pump coronary artery bypass techniques, which avoid the need for extracorporeal circulation, attenuate the inflammatory response and appear to confer clinical benefit. Concerns regarding the quality of the revascularization after off-pump coronary artery bypass appear to have been allayed. At present, ventricular assist devices do not enhance the efficacy of off-pump coronary artery bypass. In patients undergoing cardiopulmonary bypass, heparin-coated circuits, hypothermic pulmonary perfusion, normoxic reperfusion after aortic unclamping, and modified ultrafiltration hold promise. Strategies to maintain perioperative haemodynamic stability, such as enoximone therapy, may be beneficial, particularly in elderly patients. Aprotinin may have important beneficial anti-inflammatory actions in higher-risk adult and paediatric patients. The therapeutic potential of corticosteroids, particularly when administered in multiple dosages is increasingly clear. Direct anti-mediator therapies that focus upon key effector molecules and pathways of the inflammatory response offer future therapeutic options. SUMMARY The potential for strategies that inhibit the inflammatory response to improve outcome after cardiac surgery is clear. Large-scale multicentre trials investigating the most promising strategies, including off-pump coronary artery bypass, heparin-coated circuits, and perioperative corticosteroid and aprotinin therapy, are urgently needed. These trials need to be restricted to the high-risk patient groups most likely to experience benefit. In the interim, the optimal strategy to minimize the inflammatory response to cardiac surgery will remain elusive.