Epigenetic proteins are intently pursued targets in ligand discovery. To date, successful efforts have been limited to chromatin modifying enzymes, or so-called epigenetic “writers” and “erasers”. Potent inhibitors of histone binding modules have not yet been described. Here we report a cell-permeable small molecule (JQ1) which binds competitively to acetyl-lysine recognition motifs, or bromodomains. High potency and specificity toward a subset of human bromodomains is explained by co-crystal structures with BRD4, revealing excellent shape complementarity with the acetyl-lysine binding cavity. Recurrent translocation of BRD4 is observed in a genetically-defined, incurable subtype of human squamous carcinoma. Competitive binding by JQ1 displaces the BRD4 fusion oncoprotein from chromatin, prompting squamous differentiation and specific anti-proliferative effects in BRD4-dependent cell lines and patient-derived xenograft models. These data establish proof of concept for targeting protein-protein interactions of epigenetic “readers” and provide a versatile chemical scaffold for the development of chemical probes more broadly throughout the bromodomain family.