Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common, smoking-related, severe respiratory condition characterised by progressive, irreversible airflow limitation. Current treatment of COPD is symptomatic, with no drugs capable of halting the relentless progression of airflow obstruction. Better understanding of the airway inflammation, oxidative stress and alveolar destruction that characterise COPD has delineated new disease targets, with consequent identification of novel compounds with therapeutic potential. These new drugs include aids to smoking cessation (e.g. bupropion) and improvements to existing therapies, for example long-acting rather than short-acting bronchodilators, as well as combination therapy. New antiproteases include acyl-enzyme and transition state inhibitors of neutrophil elastase (e.g. sivelestat and ONO-6818), matrix metalloprotease inhibitors (e.g. batimastat), cathepsin inhibitors and peptide protease inhibitors (e.g. DX-890 [EPI-HNE-4] and trappin-2). New antioxidants include superoxide dismutase mimetics (e.g. AEOL-10113) and spin trap compounds (e.g. N-tert-butyl-alpha-phenylnitrone). New anti-inflammatory interventions include phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors (e.g. cilomilast), inhibitors of tumour necrosis factor-alpha (e.g. humanised monoclonal antibodies), adenosine A(2a) receptor agonists (e.g. CGS-21680), adhesion molecule inhibitors (e.g. bimosiamose [TBC1269]), inhibitors of nuclear factor-kappaB (e.g. the naturally occurring compounds hypoestoxide and (-)-epigallocatechin-3-gallate) and activators of histone deacetylase (e.g. theophylline). There are also selective inhibitors of specific extracellular mediators such as chemokines (e.g. CXCR2 and CCR2 antagonists) and leukotriene B(4) (e.g. SB201146), and of intracellular signal transduction molecules such as p38 mitogen activated protein kinase (e.g. RWJ67657) and phosphoinositide 3-kinase. Retinoids may be one of the few potential treatments capable of reversing alveolar destruction in COPD, and a number of compounds are in clinical trial (e.g. all-trans-retinoic acid). Talniflumate (MSI-1995), an inhibitor of human calcium-activated chloride channels, has been developed to treat mucous hypersecretion. In addition, the purinoceptor P2Y(2) receptor agonist diquafosol (INS365) is undergoing clinical trials to increase mucus clearance. The challenge to transferral of these new compounds from preclinical research to disease management is the design of effective clinical trials. The current scarcity of well characterised surrogate markers predicts that long-term studies in large numbers of patients will be needed to monitor changes in disease progression.