Little progress has been made in reducing lung cancer mortality by applying conventional methods to early diagnosis and screening. Recent advances in molecular oncology, however, have provided tools which may be of use in this area. p53 gene mutation is the most common gene alteration in the development of lung cancer. Conventional cytologic analysis of sputum is an insensitive test for the diagnosis of lung cancer. In this study, we attempted to establish a polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based assay for assessing the possibility of early detection of p53 mutation in archival Papanicolaou-stained cytologic sputum smears. Ten sputum smear slides were collected prior to clinical diagnosis from 10 lung cancer patients who had been confirmed to have p53 mutations in surgically resected lung tumors. We successfully obtained sufficient amounts of RNA from each sputum smear specimen for amplification of PCR and direct sequencing. Only one patient was found to have p53 mutation at codon 286; the other nine patients had wild type p53 genes. This result supports the possibility that detection of p53 mutations in cytologic sputum smears is an available strategy for the early diagnosis of lung cancer.