Resistance to anti-cancer drugs (drug resistance) can be defined in the laboratory by the amount of anti-cancer drug that is required to produce a given level of cell death (drug response). Clinical drug resistance can be defined either as a lack of reduction of the size of a tumour following chemotherapy or as the occurrence of clinical relapse after an initial ‘positive’ response to anti-tumour treatment. Many studies of tumour samples do not directly measure drug resistance in the laboratory (because it is difficult to perform functional assays on tumour tissue); instead, key proteins or genes that are involved in particular mechanisms of drug resistance have been proposed as ‘markers’ of drug resistance. In this review, we have focused on the problems that can arise when attempts are made to relate the relevance of laboratory-identified molecular mechanisms of drug resistance to anti-cancer drug resistance that occurs in patients. © 1999, Cambridge University Press.