Radiotherapy is one of the most common and effective therapies for cancer. Generally, patients are treated with X-rays produced by electron accelerators. Many years ago, researchers proposed that high-energy charged particles could be used for this purpose, owing to their physical and radiobiological advantages compared with X-rays. Particle therapy is an emerging technique in radiotherapy. Protons and carbon ions have been used for treating many different solid cancers, and several new centers with large accelerators are under construction. Debate continues on the cost:benefit ratio of this technique, that is, on whether the high costs of accelerators and beam delivery in particle therapy are justified by a clear clinical advantage. This Review considers the present clinical results in the field, and identifies and discusses the research questions that have resulted with this technique.