It is now recognized that the host microenvironment undergoes extensive change during the evolution and progression of cancer. This involves the generation of cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs), which, through release of growth factors and cytokines, lead to enhanced angiogenesis, increased tumour growth and invasion. It has also been demonstrated that CAFs may modulate the cancer stem cell (CSC) phenotype, which has therapeutic implications. The altered fibroblast phenotype also contributes to the development of an altered extracellular matrix (ECM), with synthesis of ECM isoforms rarely found in normal tissues, including tenascin-C isoforms and the fibronectin EDA isoform. There is also emerging evidence of how the tensile strength of the tumour-associated ECM may be modified and lead to altered signalling in tumour cells. The hypoxic environment of the tumour stimulates angiogenesis and also impacts on other aspects of cell signalling, including the c-met pathway and lysyl oxidase-mediated signalling, which can directly promote tumour cell invasion. The inflammatory infiltrate associated with many solid tumours also modulates tumour function, having both anti- and pro-tumour effects. All of these components of the microenvironment provide potential targets for therapeutic attack, with a number of molecules already in clinical trials. It is also becoming evident that characterizing the tumour microenvironment can provide important prognostic and predictive information about tumours, independent of the tumour cell phenotype. Copyright © 2010 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.