Superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles (SPIONs) can substantially improve the sensitivity of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). We propose that SPIONs could be used to target and image cancer cells if functionalised with recombinant single chain Fv antibody fragments (scFv). We tested our hypothesis by generating antibody-functionalised (abf) SPIONs using a scFv specific for carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), an oncofoetal cell surface protein. SPIONs of different hydrodynamic diameter and surface chemistry were investigated and targeting was confirmed by ELISA, cellular iron uptake, confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM) and MRI. Results demonstrated that abf-SPIONs bound specifically to CEA-expressing human tumour cells, generating selective image contrast on MRI. In addition, we observed that the cellular interaction of the abf-SPIONs was influenced by hydrodynamic size and surface coating. The results indicate that abf-SPIONs have potential for cancer-specific MRI. © 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.