The advancement of surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) is significantly increasing as an ultra-sensitive sensing technology in biomedical research. In this review, we focus on the most recent developments of biocompatible nanoprobes for cancer research. First, we discuss coating approaches to enhance the biocompatibility of SERS substrate and Raman reporters. Furthermore, interesting ligands such as antibodies, aptamers and polypeptides are attached to the surface of nanotags for targeting the cancerous cells in vitro. The unique multiplexing capabilities of the SERS technique have been applied for simultaneous multiple target recognition. Finally, these noninvasive, ultrasensitive tools are mostly highlighted for in vivo tumor detection. Potential application of SERS nanotags in therapeutic study and the possibility of SERS nanotags in biomedical applications are outlined briefly in this review. © 2014 Future Medicine Ltd.