Twenty-five years after its inception, the genetic engineering of T cells is now a therapeutic modality pursued at an increasing number of medical centers. This immunotherapeutic strategy is predicated on gene transfer technology to instruct T lymphocytes to recognize and reject tumor cells. Chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) are synthetic receptors that mediate antigen recognition, T cell activation, and - in the case of second-generation CARs - costimulation to augment T cell functionality and persistence. We demonstrated over a decade ago that human T cells engineered with a CD19-specific CAR eradicated B cell malignancies in mice. Several phase I clinical trials eventually yielded dramatic results in patients with leukemia or lymphoma, especially acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). This review recounts the milestones of CD19 CAR therapy and summarizes lessons learned from the CD19 paradigm.