The therapeutic potential of host-specific and tumour-specific immune responses is well recognized and, after many years, active immunotherapies directed at inducing or augmenting these responses are entering clinical practice. Antitumour immunization is a complex, multi-component task, and the optimal combinations of antigens, adjuvants, delivery vehicles and routes of administration are not yet identified. Active immunotherapy must also address the immunosuppressive and tolerogenic mechanisms deployed by tumours. This Review provides an overview of new results from clinical studies of therapeutic cancer vaccines directed against tumour-associated antigens and discusses their implications for the use of active immunotherapy. © 2014 Macmillan Publishers Limited.