The function of T lymphocytes as orchestrators and effectors of the adaptive immune response is directed by the specificity of their T cell receptors (TCRs). By transferring into T cells the genes encoding antigen-specific receptors, the functional activity of large populations of T cells can be redirected against defined targets including virally infected or cancer cells. The potential of therapeutic T cells to traffic to sites of disease, to expand and to persist after a single treatment remains a major advantage over the currently available immunotherapies that use monoclonal antibodies. Here we review recent progress in the field of TCR gene therapy, outlining challenges to its successful implementation and the strategies being used to overcome them. We detail strategies used in the optimization of affinity and surface expression of the introduced TCR, the choice of T cell subpopulations for gene transfer, and the promotion of persistence of gene-modified T cells in vivo. We review the safety concerns surrounding the use of gene-modified T cells in patients, discussing emerging solutions to these problems, and describe the increasingly positive results from the use of gene-modified T cells in recent clinical trials of adoptive cellular immunotherapy. The increasing sophistication of measures to ensure the safety of engineered T cells is accompanied by an increasing number of clinical trials: these will be essential to guide the effective translation of cellular immunotherapy from the laboratory to the bedside. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.