Telomeres are the structures that protect eukaryotic chromosomes from recognition by DNA damage surveillance mechanisms and are maintained in the germ line of multicellular animals by telomerase. In most human somatic cells telomerase is silenced during development and after extensive cell division telomeres shorten to trigger growth arrest. Around 80% of human cancers escape from this growth arrest by re-activating telomerase but at diagnosis many cancers still have very short telomeres making them very vulnerable to the inhibition of telomerase. As normal cells have a considerable telomere reserve, even in elderly humans, this makes telomerase an attractive and potentially selective anti-cancer drug target. Proof-of-principle experiments are reviewed which show that this optimism may be justified at least for the subset of human cancers with short telomeres. I also address many of the commonly raised concerns that surround telomerase as a target for anti-cancer drug design.