Dendritic cells (DC) are now recognised as a unique leukocyte type, consisting of two or more subsets. The origins and functional inter-relationships of these cells are the subject of intense basic scientific investigation. They play important roles in initiating and directing immune responses, defending the host from pathogens and maintaining self tolerance. Fundamental studies are defining new molecules and mechanisms associated with DC function. The first methods for counting these rare blood cell populations are already providing interesting new clinical data. Indeed, abnormal DC function may contribute to deficiencies in the immune response against malignancies. Phase I trial data suggests that DC-based cancer vaccination protocols may contribute an important new biological approach to cancer therapy. Manipulation of DC to facilitate allogeneic transplantation and even to manage autoimmune disease are likely developments.