The camptothecins are a new class of chemotherapeutic agents which have a novel mechanism of action targeting the nuclear enzyme topoisomerase I. Knowledge of the structure-activity relationships of the parent compound camptothecin has led to the development of effective soluble analogues with manageable toxicities. Broad anti-tumour activity shown in preclinical studies has been confirmed in phase I/II studies for irinotecan and topotecan. Two other derivatives, 9-aminocamptothecin and GI 147211C, are undergoing phase I and early phase II evaluation. Although camptothecin is a plant extract, it and most of its derivatives are not affected by the classic P-gpMDR1 mechanism of resistance which may allow the development of novel combination chemotherapeutic regimens. Important areas of future endeavour will include the development of rational combination regimens and the pursuit of randomised trials. Based on single agent data, colorectal cancer and non-small-cell lung cancer should be the focus for future irinotecan studies. Small-cell lung cancer and ovarian carcinoma are logical tumour types to pursue with topotecan. Both 9-aminocamptothecin and GI 147211C are too early in their clinical evaluation to make recommendations about their future roles. Finally, the unfolding story of camptothecin analogue development will give important insights into the predictive value of preclinical observations on relative efficacy, schedule dependency, combination strategies and resistance mechanisms which have helped determine the strategies for clinical evaluation of these agents.