The engineered expression of chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) on the surface of T cells enables the redirection of T-cell specificity. Early clinical trials using CAR T cells for the treatment of patients with cancer showed modest results, but the impressive outcomes of several trials of CD19-targeted CAR T cells in the treatment of patients with B-cell malignancies have generated an increased enthusiasm for this approach. Important lessons have been derived from clinical trials of CD19-specific CAR T cells, and ongoing clinical trials are testing CAR designs directed at novel targets involved in haematological and solid malignancies. In this Review, we discuss these trials and present strategies that can increase the antitumour efficacy and safety of CAR T-cell therapy. Given the fast-moving nature of this field, we only discuss studies with direct translational application currently or soon-to-be tested in the clinical setting.