Current medicine has only taken us so far in reducing disease and tissue damage. Extracellular vesicles (EVs), which are membranous nanostructures produced naturally by cells, have been hailed as a next-generation medicine. EVs deliver various biomolecules, including proteins, lipids and nucleic acids, which can influence the behaviour of specific target cells. Since EVs not only mirror composition of their parent cells but also modify the recipient cells, they can be used in three key areas of medicine: regenerative medicine, disease detection and drug delivery. In this Review, we discuss the transformational and translational progress witnessed in EV-based medicine to date, focusing on two key elements: the mechanisms by which EVs aid tissue repair (for example, skin and bone tissue regeneration) and the potential of EVs to detect diseases at an early stage with high sensitivity and specificity (for example, detection of glioblastoma). Furthermore, we describe the progress and results of clinical trials of EVs and demonstrate the benefits of EVs when compared with traditional medicine, including cell therapy in regenerative medicine and solid biopsy in disease detection. Finally, we present the challenges, opportunities and regulatory framework confronting the clinical application of EV-based products.