Arginine, a semi-essential amino acid in humans, is critical for the growth of human cancers, particularly those marked by de novo chemoresistance and a poor clinical outcome. In addition to protein synthesis, arginine is involved in diverse aspects of tumour metabolism, including the synthesis of nitric oxide, polyamines, nucleotides, proline and glutamate. Tumoural downregulation of the enzyme argininosuccinate synthetase (ASS1), a recognised rate-limiting step in arginine synthesis, results in an intrinsic dependence on extracellular arginine due to an inability to synthesise arginine for growth. This dependence on extracellular arginine is known as arginine auxotrophy. Several tumours are arginine auxotrophic, due to variable loss of ASS1, including hepatocellular carcinoma, malignant melanoma, malignant pleural mesothelioma, prostate and renal cancer. Importantly, targeting extracellular arginine for degradation in the absence of ASS1 triggers apoptosis in arginine auxotrophs. Several phase I/II clinical trials of the arginine-lowering drug, pegylated arginine deiminase, have shown encouraging evidence of clinical benefit and low toxicity in patients with ASS1-negative tumours. In part, ASS1 loss is due to epigenetic silencing of the ASS1 promoter in various human cancer cell lines and tumours, and it is this silencing that confers arginine auxotrophy. In relapsed ovarian cancer, this is associated with platinum refractoriness. In contrast, several platinum sensitive tumours, including primary ovarian, stomach and colorectal cancer, are characterised by ASS1 overexpression, which is regulated by proinflammatory cytokines. This review examines the prospects for novel approaches in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of malignant disease based on ASS1 pathophysiology and its rate-limiting product, arginine.