Adoptive cellular immunotherapy of cancer has been limited to date mostly due to the poor immunogenicity of tumor cells, the immunocompromised status of cancer patients in advanced stages of their disease, and difficulties in raising sufficient numbers of autologous tumor-specific T lymphocytes. On the other hand, the slow tumor penetration and short half-life of exogenously administered tumor-specific monoclonal antibodies have provided major obstacles for an effective destruction of tumor cells by the humoral effector arm of the immune system. Attempts to improve the efficacy of adoptive cellular cancer immunotherapy have led to the development of novel strategies that combine advantages of T cell-based (i.e., efficient tumor penetration, cytokine release and cytotoxicity) and antibody-based (high specificity for tumor-associated antigens) immunotherapy by grafting cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) with chimeric receptors composed of antibody fragments (which recognize tumor-cell antigens) and a cellular activation motif. Antigen recognition is therefore not restricted by major histocompatibility genes, as the physiological T-cell receptor, but rather is directed to native cell surface structures. Since the requirements of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) restriction in the interaction of effector cells with target cells are bypassed, the tumor cell-binding of CTLs grafted with chimeric receptors is not affected by down-regulation of HLA class I antigens and by defects in the antigen-processing machinery. Ligand binding by the chimeric receptor triggers phosphorylation of immunoglobulin tyrosine activation motifs (ITAMs) in the cytoplasmic region of the molecule and this activates a signaling cascade that is required for the induction of cytotoxicity, cytokine secretion and proliferation. Here, the authors discuss the potential of lymphocytes grafted with chimeric antigen receptors in the immunotherapy of malignant disease.