The past 20 years have seen dramatic changes in the delivery of radiation therapy, but the impact of radiobiology on the clinic has been far less substantial. A major consideration in the use of radiotherapy has been on how best to exploit differences between the tumour and host tissue characteristics, which in the past has been achieved empirically by radiation-dose fractionation. New advances are uncovering some of the mechanistic processes that underlie this success story. In this Review, we focus on how these processes might be targeted to improve the outcome of radiotherapy at the individual patient level. This approach would seem a more productive avenue of treatment than simply trying to increase the radiation dose delivered to the tumour.