Eukaryotic organisms depend on an intricate and evolutionary conserved cell cycle to control cell division. The cell cycle is regulated by a number of important protein families which are common targets for mutational inactivation or overexpression in human tumours. The cyclin D and E families and their cyclin-dependent kinase partners initiate the phosphorylation of the retinoblastoma tumour suppressor protein and subsequent transition through the cell cycle. Cyclin/cdk activity and therefore control of cell division is restrained by two families of cyclin dependent kinase inhibitors. A greater understanding of the cell cycle has led to the development of a number of compounds with the potential to restore control of cell division in human cancers. This review will introduce the protein families that regulate the cell cycle, their aberrations in malignant progression and pharmacological strategies targeting this important process.