A series of cancer vaccines have been evaluated in clinical trials with encouraging results, but the demonstration of clinical benefit in confirmatory studies has so far proven to be difficult. The development of cancer vaccines is hampered by a range of issues particular to this field of research. On 12th March 2008, the Biotherapy Development Association convened a workshop to discuss issues faced by scientists and clinicians involved in the development of cancer vaccines. This paper is a review of the field, based on discussions held at the BDA workshop, and describes biological barriers encountered in generating effective immune responses to tumours, methodological obstacles encountered in the improvement of immunological monitoring which aims to improve inter-laboratory and inter-trial comparisons, challenges in clinical trial design and problems posed by the lack of specific regulation for cancer vaccines and the impact on their development. Ultimately, a number of general solutions are posed: (1) better patient selection, (2) use of multi-modal treatments that affect several aspects of the immune system at once, (3) a requirement for the development of good biomarkers to stratify patients for selection prior to trial and as surrogates for clinical response and (4) harmonisation of SOPs for immunological monitoring of clinical trials.