This review establishes the pharmacokinetic characteristics of the major nucleoside analogues with cytotoxic activity. Cytarabine, pentostatin, fludarabine, cladribine and gemcitabine are all prodrugs whose plasma pharmacokinetics do not fully reflect their therapeutic activity; after cellular uptake, these compounds undergo phosphorylation by deoxycytidine kinase before their incorporation into DNA results in cell death. Cytarabine is principally active in the S phase of the cell cycle and is most toxic to replicating cells, whereas pentostatin, fludarabine and cladribine are incorporated into DNA during the process in which strand breaks are repaired and are therefore cytotoxic to slowly replicating cells (although the action of pentostatin results from its inhibition of adenosine deaminase). Gemcitabine is unusual in being highly metabolised in solid tumour cells. The cytotoxic activity of pentostatin, fludarabine and cladribine against the clonal cells of lymphoproliferative disorders is accompanied by damage to normal lymphoid cells, which results in significant and long-lasting immunosuppression. Useful interactions between nucleoside analogues have been defined. Cells that are primed by exposure to fludarabine or cladribine exhibit enhanced accumulation of cytarabine triphosphate (the cytotoxic nucleotide of cytarabine) and an improved therapeutic effect against acute myeloid leukaemia and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia can be achieved by clinical schedules that exploit this effect. Combinations of alkylating agents and fludarabine or cladribine are also synergistic in producing significantly enhanced activity against refractory lymphoid malignancies, but at the cost of increased haematological toxicity. Developments in the clinical administration of gemcitabine are concentrating on efforts to extend the duration of exposure to the drug as a means of counteracting its rapid catabolism in the circulation. Future developments with this group of agents will further explore the use of fludarabine-based combination therapies to produce a transient period of myelosuppression and immunosuppression that is sufficient to permit the engraftment of allogeneic haemopoietic stem cells and also exploit the immunological benefits of graft-versus-tumour reactions. In addition, the clinical spectrum of activity of gemcitabine is also being extended by combining the drug with other active chemotherapeutic agents, such as cisplatin, and by early studies of its role as a radiosensitiser.