Breast cancer is a heterogeneous disease that encompasses several distinct entities with remarkably different biological characteristics and clinical behaviour. Currently, breast cancer patients are managed according to algorithms based on a constellation of clinical and histopathological parameters in conjunction with assessment of hormone receptor (oestrogen and progesterone receptor) status and HER2 overexpression/gene amplification. Although effective tailored therapies have been developed for patients with hormone receptor-positive or HER2+ disease, chemotherapy is the only modality of systemic therapy for patients with breast cancers lacking the expression of these markers (triple-negative cancers). Recent microarray expression profiling analyses have demonstrated that breast cancers can be systematically characterized into biologically and clinically meaningful groups. These studies have led to the re-discovery of basal-like breast cancers, which preferentially show a triple-negative phenotype. Both triple-negative and basal-like cancers preferentially affect young and African-American women, are of high histological grade and have more aggressive clinical behaviour. Furthermore, a significant overlap between the biological and clinical characteristics of sporadic triple-negative and basal-like cancers and breast carcinomas arising in BRCA1 mutation carriers has been repeatedly demonstrated. In this review, we critically address the characteristics of basal-like and triple-negative cancers, their similarities and differences, their response to chemotherapy as well as strategies for the development of novel therapeutic targets for these aggressive types of breast cancer. In addition, the possible mechanisms are discussed leading to BRCA1 pathway dysfunction in sporadic triple-negative and basal-like cancers and animal models for these tumour types.