Patients with pancreatic cancer normally present with advanced disease that is lethal and notoriously difficult to treat. Survival has not improved dramatically despite routine use of chemotherapy and radiotherapy; this situation signifies an urgent need for novel therapeutic approaches. Over the past decade, a large number of studies have been published that aimed to target the molecular abnormalities implicated in pancreatic tumor growth, invasion, metastasis, angiogenesis and resistance to apoptosis. This research is of particular importance, as data suggest that a large number of genetic alterations affect only a few major signaling pathways and processes involved in pancreatic tumorigenesis. Although laboratory results of targeted therapies have been impressive, until now only erlotinib, an epidermal growth factor receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitor, has demonstrated modest survival benefit in combination with gemcitabine in a phase III clinical trial. Whilst the failures of targeted therapies in the clinical setting are discouraging, lessons have been learnt and new therapeutic targets that hold promise for the future management of the disease are continuously emerging. This Review describes some of the important developments and targeted agents for pancreatic cancer that have been tested in clinical trials.