Motivated by the promises of gene therapy, there is great interest in developing non-viral lipid-based vectors for therapeutic applications due to their low immunogenicity, low toxicity, ease of production, and the potential of transferring large pieces of DNA into cells. In fact, cationic liposome (CL) based vectors are among the prevalent synthetic carriers of nucleic acids (NAs) currently used in gene therapy clinical trials worldwide. These vectors are studied both for gene delivery with CL-DNA complexes and gene silencing with CL-siRNA (short interfering RNA) complexes. However, their transfection efficiencies and silencing efficiencies remain low compared to those of engineered viral vectors. This reflects the currently poor understanding of transfection-related mechanisms at the molecular and self-assembled levels, including a lack of knowledge about interactions between membranes and double stranded NAs and between CL-NA complexes and cellular components. In this review we describe our recent efforts to improve the mechanistic understanding of transfection by CL-NA complexes, which will help to design optimal lipid-based carriers of DNA and siRNA for therapeutic gene delivery and gene silencing.