Nanotechnology applications in medicine, termed as nanomedicine, have introduced a number of nanoparticles of variable chemistry and architecture for cancer imaging and treatment. Nanotechnology involves engineering multifunctional devices with dimensions at the nanoscale, similar dimensions as those of large biological vesicles or molecules in our body. These devices typically have features just tens to hundred nanometers across and they can carry one or two detection signals and/or therapeutic cargo(s). One unique class of nanoparticles is designed to do both, providing this way the theragnostic nanoparticles (therapy and diagnosis). Being inspired by physiologically existing nanomachines, nanoparticles are designed to safely reach their target and specifically release their cargo at the site of the disease, this way increasing the drug's tissue bioavailability. Nanoparticles have the advantage of targeting cancer by simply being accumulated and entrapped in tumours (passive targeting). The phenomenon is called the enhanced permeation and retention effect, caused by leaky angiogenetic vessels and poor lymphatic drainage and has been used to explain why macromolecules and nanoparticles are found at higher ratios in tumours compared to normal tissues. Although accumulation in tumours is observed cell uptake and intracellular drug release have been questioned. Polyethyleneglycol (PEG) is used to protect the nanoparticles from the Reticulo-Endothelial System (RES), however, it prevents cell uptake and the required intracellular drug release. Grafting biorecognition molecules (ligands) onto the nanoparticles refers to active targeting and aims to increase specific cell uptake. Nanoparticles bearing these ligands are recognised by cell surface receptors and this leads to receptor-mediated endocytosis. Several materials are suggested for the design of nanoparticles for cancer. Polymers, linear and dendrimers, are associated with the drug in a covalent or non-covalent way and have been used with or without a targeting ligand. Stealth liposomes are suggested to carry the drug in the aqueous core, and they are usually decorated by recognition molecules, being widely studied and applied. Inorganic nanoparticles such as gold and iron oxide are usually coupled to the drug, PEG and the targeting ligand. It appears that the PEG coating and ligand decoration are common constituents in most types of nanoparticles for cancer. There are several examples of successful cancer diagnostic and therapeutic nanoparticles and many of them have rapidly moved to clinical trials. Nevertheless there is still a room for optimisation in the area of the nanoparticle kinetics such as improving their plasma circulation and tumour bioavailability and understanding the effect of targeting ligands on their efficiency to treat cancer. The need to develop novel and efficient ligands has never been greater, and the use of proper conjugation chemistry is mandatory. Copyright 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.