Increasing knowledge of the structure and function of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) subfamily of tyrosine kinases and of their role in the initiation and progression of various cancers has, in recent years, provided the impetus for a substantial research effort aimed at developing new anticancer therapies that target specific components of the EGFR signal transduction pathway. Selective compounds have been developed that target either the extracellular ligand-binding region of the EGFR or the intracellular tyrosine kinase region, resulting in interference with the signalling pathways that modulate mitogenic and other cancer-promoting responses (e.g. cell motility, cell adhesion, invasion and angiogenesis). Potential new anticancer agents that target the extracellular ligand-binding region of the receptor include a number of monoclonal antibodies, immunotoxins and ligand-binding cytotoxic agents. Agents that target the intracellular tyrosine kinase region include small molecule tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs), which act by interfering with ATP binding to the receptor, and various other compounds that act at substrate-binding regions or downstream components of the signalling pathway. Currently, the most advanced of the newer therapies undergoing clinical development are antireceptor monoclonal antibodies (e.g. trastuzumab and cetuximab) and a number of small molecule EGFR-TKIs principally of the quinazoline and pyrazolo-pyrrolo-pyridopyrimidine inhibitor structural classes. The latter group of compounds offers several advantages in cancer chemotherapy, including the possibility of inhibiting specific deregulated pathways in cancer cells while having minimal effects on normal cell function. They also have favourable pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic properties and low toxicity, and some TKIs such as the reversible inhibitor ZD1839 ('Iressa') are now undergoing phase II to III clinical trials. In addition, the accumulation of evidence from laboratory studies strongly suggests that EGFR-selective TKIs will have synergistic effects with other antitumour agents or therapy such as cytostatic agents, conventional cytotoxic drugs and radiotherapy. As our knowledge of signal transduction pathways in cancer increases, it is hoped that further advances in this area will allow the therapeutic potential of these compounds as anticancer agents to be realised.