Precisely localizing therapeutic agents in neoplastic areas would greatly improve their efficacy for killing tumor cells and reduce their toxicity to normal cells. Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a promising cancer treatment modality, and near-infrared fluorescence imaging (NIRF-I) is a sensitive and noninvasive approach for in vivo cancer detection. This review focuses on the current efforts to engineer single molecule constructs that allow these two modalities to be combined to achieve a high level of selectivity for cancer treatment. The primary component of these so called killer beacons is a fluorescent photosensitizer responsible for both imaging and therapy. By attaching other components, e.g. various DNA- or peptide-based linkers, quenchers or cancer cell-specific delivery vehicles, their primary diagnostic and therapeutic functions as well as their target specificity and pharmacological properties can be modulated. This modular design makes these agents customizable, offering the ability to assemble a few simple and often interchangeable functional modules into beacons with totally different functions. This review will summarize following three types of killer beacons: photodynamic molecular beacons, traceable beacons and beacons with built-in apoptosis sensor. Despite the rapid progress in killer beacon development, numerous challenges remain before these beacons can be translated into clinics, such as photobleaching, delivery efficiency and cancerspecificity. In this review we outline the basic principles of killer beacons, the current achievements and future directions, including possible cancer targets and different therapeutic applications.