Therapeutic nanoparticles (TNPs) aim to deliver drugs more safely and effectively to cancers, yet clinical results have been unpredictable owing to limited in vivo understanding. Here we use single-cell imaging of intratumoral TNP pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics to better comprehend their heterogeneous behaviour. Model TNPs comprising a fluorescent platinum(IV) pro-drug and a clinically tested polymer platform (PLGA-b-PEG) promote long drug circulation and alter accumulation by directing cellular uptake toward tumour-associated macrophages (TAMs). Simultaneous imaging of TNP vehicle, its drug payload and single-cell DNA damage response reveals that TAMs serve as a local drug depot that accumulates significant vehicle from which DNA-damaging Pt payload gradually releases to neighbouring tumour cells. Correspondingly, TAM depletion reduces intratumoral TNP accumulation and efficacy. Thus, nanotherapeutics co-opt TAMs for drug delivery, which has implications for TNP design and for selecting patients into trials.