Poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase 1 (PARP-1) is a zinc-finger DNA-binding enzyme that is activated by binding to DNA breaks. Poly(ADP-ribosyl)ation of nuclear proteins by PARP-1 converts DNA damage into intracellular signals that activate either DNA repair by the base-excision pathway or cell death. A family of 18 PARPs has been identified, but only the most abundant, PARP-1 and PARP-2, which are both nuclear enzymes, are activated by DNA damage. PARP inhibitors of ever-increasing potency have been developed in the 40 years since the discovery of PARP-1, both as tools for the investigation of PARP-1 function and as potential modulators of DNA-repair-mediated resistance to cytotoxic therapy. Owing to the high level of homology between the catalytic domains of PARP-1 and PARP-2, the inhibitors probably affect both enzymes. Convincing biochemical evidence, which has been corroborated by genetic manipulation of PARP-1 activity, shows that PARP inhibition is associated with increased sensitivity to DNA-alkylating agents, topoisomerase I poisons and ionising radiation. Novel PARP inhibitors of sufficient potency and suitable pharmacokinetic properties to allow evaluation in animal models have been shown to enhance the antitumour activity of temozolomide (a DNA-methylating agent), topoisomerase poisons and ionising radiation; indeed, the combination with temozolomide resulted in complete tumour regression in two independent studies. The combination of a PARP inhibitor and temozolomide is currently undergoing clinical evaluation for the first time.