The last 15 years has seen an explosion of interest in the cancer stem cell (CSC). Although it was initially believed that only a rare population of stem cells are able to undergo self-renewing divisions and differentiate to form all populations within a malignancy, a recent work has shown that these cells may not be as rare as thought first, at least in some malignancies. Improved experimental models are beginning to uncover a less rigid structure to CSC biology, in which the concepts of functional plasticity and clonal evolution must be incorporated into the traditional models. Slowly the genetic programmes and biological processes underlying stem cell biology are being elucidated, opening the door to the development of drugs targeting the CSC. The aim of ongoing research to understand CSCs is to develop novel stem cell-directed treatments, which will reduce therapy resistance, relapse and the toxicity associated with current, non-selective agents.