Advances in biotechnology have brought gene therapy to the forefront of medical research. The feasibility of gene transfer was first demonstrated in experiments using tumour viruses. This led to the development of a variety of viral and nonviral methods for the genetic modification of somatic cells. Two main approaches emerged: in-vivo modification, in which gene transfer vehicles are delivered directly into patients, and ex-vivo manipulation, in which cells from the patient are grown in culture, genetically modified and then returned to the patient. In 1990, shortly after the safety of retrovirus-mediated gene transfer was demonstrated in patients with malignant melanoma, the first clinical trial of gene therapy was initiated for adenosine deaminase deficiency. Since then, the number of clinical protocols initiated worldwide has increased exponentially. Although some clinical trials now in progress are concerned with relatively rare inborn errors of metabolism, most are concerned with more commonly encountered cancers and infectious diseases. Preliminary results suggest that by the turn of the century the dream of treating diseases by replacing or supplementing the products of defective genes or introducing novel therapeutic genes will become a reality.