The global impetus to identify curative therapies has been fuelled by the unmet needs of patients in the context of a growing heart failure pandemic. To date, regeneration trials in patients with cardiovascular disease have used stem-cell-based therapy in the period immediately after myocardial injury, in an attempt to halt progression towards ischaemic cardiomyopathy, or in the setting of congestive heart failure, to target the disease process and prevent organ decompensation. Worldwide, several thousand patients have now been treated using autologous cell-based therapy; the safety and feasibility of this approach has been established, pitfalls have been identified, and optimization procedures envisioned. Furthermore, the initiation of phase III trials to further validate the therapeutic value of cell-based regenerative medicine and address the barriers to successful clinical implementation has led to resurgence in the enthusiasm for such treatments among patients and health-care providers. In particular, poor definition of cell types used, diversity in cell-handling procedures, and functional variability intrinsic to autologously-derived cells have been identified as the main factors limiting adoption of cell-based therapies. In this Review, we summarize the experience obtained from trials of 'first-generation' cell-based therapy, and emphasize the advances in the purification and lineage specification of stem cells that have enabled the development of 'next-generation' stem-cell-based therapies targeting cardiovascular disease.