Efficient patient management relies on early diagnosis of disease and monitoring of treatment. In this regard, much effort has been made to find informative, blood-based biomarkers for patients with cancer. Owing to their attributes-which are specifically modulated by the tumour-circulating cell-free microRNAs found in the peripheral blood of patients with cancer may provide insights into the biology of the tumour and the effects of therapeutic interventions. Moreover, the role of microRNAs in the regulation of different cellular processes points to their clinical utility as blood-based biomarkers and future therapeutic targets. MicroRNAs are optimal biomarkers owing to high stability under storage and handling conditions and their presence in blood, urine and other body fluids. In particular, detection of levels of microRNAs in blood plasma and serum has the potential for an earlier cancer diagnosis and to predict prognosis and response to therapy. This Review article considers the latest developments in the use of circulating microRNAs as prognostic and predictive biomarkers and discusses their utility in personalized medicine.