Historically, the main classes of drug targets have been receptors, enzymes, ion channels and transporters. However, owing largely to the rise of antibody-based therapies in the past two decades, soluble protein ligands such as inflammatory cytokines have become an increasingly important class of drug targets. In this Review, we analyse drugs targeting ligands that have reached clinical development at some point since 1992. We identify 291 drugs that target 99 unique ligands, and we discuss trends in the characteristics of the ligands, drugs and indications for which they have been tested. In the last 5 years, the number of ligand-targeting drugs approved by the FDA has doubled to 34, while the number of clinically validated ligand targets has doubled to 22. Cytokines and growth factors are the predominant types of targeted ligands (70%), and inflammation and autoimmune disorders, cancer and ophthalmological diseases are the top therapeutic areas for both approved agents and agents in clinical studies, reflecting the central role of cytokine and/or growth factor pathways in such diseases.