Malignant pleural mesothelioma is an aggressive thoracic malignancy associated with exposure to asbestos, and its incidence is anticipated to increase during the first half of this century. Chemotherapy is the mainstay of treatment, yet sufficiently robust evidence to substantiate the current standard of care has emerged only in the past 5 years. This Review summarizes the evidence supporting the clinical activity of chemotherapy, discusses the use of end points for its assessment and examines the influence of clinical and biochemical prognostic factors on the natural history of malignant pleural mesothelioma. Early-phase clinical trials of second-line and novel agents are emerging from an increased understanding of mesothelioma cell biology. Coupled with high-quality translational research, such developments have real potential to improve the outlook of patients at a time of increasing incidence.