With several gold nanoparticle-based therapies currently undergoing clinical trials, these treatments may soon be in the clinic as novel anticancer agents. Gold nanoparticles are the subject of a wide ranging international research effort with preclinical studies underway for multiple applications including photoablation, diagnostic imaging, radiosensitization and multifunctional drug-delivery vehicles. These applications require an increasingly complex level of surface modification in order to achieve efficacy and limit off-target toxicity. This review will discuss the main obstacles in relation to surface functionalization and the chemical approaches commonly utilized. Finally, we review a range of recent preclinical studies that aim to advance gold nanoparticle treatments toward the clinic.