Wilms tumour is the most common tumour of the pediatric kidney. Elevation of hypoxia-inducible factor 1α (HIF-1α) has been detected in 93% to 100% of human Wilms tumour specimens, suggesting a potential value of HIF-1α as a therapeutic target for Wilms tumour. In the present study, a stable HIF-1α-silenced Wilms tumour cell strain was established by introducing HIF-1α short-hairpin RNA (shRNA) into SK-NEP-1 cells. Silencing of HIF-1α significantly reduced single-cell growth capacity, suppressed proliferation and arrested cell cycle of SK-NEP-1 cells. In addition, reduction of HIF-1α expression induced apoptosis in SK-NEP-1 cells, which was accompanied by increased levels of cleaved caspase-3, cleaved poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) and Bax as well as downregulation of Bcl-2 in the cells. Furthermore, when inoculated subcutaneously in nude mice, HIF-1α-silenced SK-NEP-1 cells displayed retarded tumour growth and impaired tumour angiogenesis. In summary, the findings of this study suggest that HIF-1α plays a critical role in the development of Wilms tumour, and it may serve as a candidate target of gene therapy for Wilms tumour.