Biomedical engineering and its associated disciplines play a pivotal role in improving our understanding and management of disease. Motivated by past accomplishments, such as the clinical implementation of coronary stents, pacemakers or recent developments in antibody therapies, disease management now enters a new era in which precision imaging and nanotechnology-enabled therapeutics are maturing to clinical translation. Preclinical molecular imaging increasingly focuses on specific components of the immune system that drive disease progression and complications, allowing the in vivo study of potential therapeutic targets. The first multicentre trials highlight the potential of clinical multimodality imaging for more efficient drug development. In this perspective, the role of integrating engineering, nanotechnology, molecular imaging and immunology to yield precision medicine is discussed.This article is part of the themed issue 'Challenges for chemistry in molecular imaging'.