Tumours with specific DNA repair defects can be completely dependent on back-up DNA repair pathways for their survival. This dependence can be exploited therapeutically to induce synthetic lethality in tumour cells. For instance, homologous recombination (HR)-deficient tumours can be effectively targeted by DNA double-strand break-inducing agents. However, not all HR-defective tumours respond equally well to this type of therapy. Tumour cells may acquire resistance by invoking biochemical mechanisms that reduce drug action or by acquiring additional alterations in DNA damage response pathways. A thorough understanding of these processes is important for predicting treatment response and for the development of novel treatment strategies that prevent the emergence of therapy-resistant tumours.