<i>Background:</i> Acute kidney injury (AKI) is common in patients undergoing cardiac surgery and is associated with a high rate of death, long-term sequelae and healthcare costs. We conducted a systematic review of randomized controlled trials for strategies to prevent or treat AKI in cardiac surgery. <i>Methods:</i> We screened Medline, Scopus, Cochrane Renal Library, and Google Scholar for randomized controlled trails in cardiac surgery for prevention or treatment of AKI in adults. <i>Results:</i> We identified 70 studies that contained a total of 5,554 participants published until November 2008. Most studies were small in sample size, were single-center, focused on preventive strategies, and displayed wide variation in AKI definitions. Only 26% were assessed to be of high quality according to the Jadad criteria. The types of strategies with possible protective efficacy were dopaminergic agents, vasodilators, anti-inflammatory agents, and pump/perfusion strategies. When analyzed separately, dopamine and N-acetylcysteine did not reduce the risk for AKI. <i>Conclusions:</i> This summary of all the literature on prevention and treatment strategies for AKI in cardiac surgery highlights the need for better information. The results advocate large, good-quality, multicenter studies to determine whether promising interventions reliably reduce rates of acute renal replacement therapy and mortality in the cardiac surgery setting.