No currently available treatments have been shown to slow the progression of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or suppress the inflammation in small airways and lung parenchyma. However, several new treatments are in clinical development; some target the inflammatory process and others are directed against structural cells. A group of specific therapies are directed against the influx of inflammatory cells into the airways and lung parenchyma that occurs in COPD; these include agents directed against adhesion molecules and chemokines, as well as therapies to oppose tumour necrosis factor alpha and increase interleukin 10. Broad-range anti-inflammatory drugs are now in phase III development for COPD; they include inhibitors of phosphodiesterase 4. Other drugs that inhibit cell signalling include inhibitors of p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase, nuclear factor kappaB, and phosphoinositide-3-kinase gamma. More specific approaches are to give antioxidants, inhibitors of inducible nitric oxide synthase, and antagonists of leukotriene B4 receptor. Inhibitors of epidermal-growth-factor-receptor kinase and calcium-activated chloride channels have the potential to prevent overproduction of mucus. Therapy to inhibit fibrosis is being developed against transforming growth factor beta1 and protease-activated receptor 2. There is also a search for inhibitors of serine proteinases and matrix metalloproteinases to prevent lung destruction and the development of emphysema, as well as drugs such as retinoids that might even reverse this process. Effective delivery of drugs to the sites of disease in the peripheral lung is an important consideration, and there is a need for validated biomarkers and monitoring techniques in early clinical studies with new therapies for COPD.