Despite the promise of using DNA markers for the early detection of cancer, none has proven universally applicable to the most common and lethal forms of human malignancy. Lung carcinoma, the leading cause of tumor-related death, is a key example of a cancer for which mortality could be greatly reduced through the development of sensitive molecular markers detectable at the earliest stages of disease. By increasing the sensitivity of a PCR approach to detect methylated DNA sequences, we now demonstrate that aberrant methylation of the p16 and/or O6-methyl-guanine-DNA methyltransferase promoters can be detected in DNA from sputum in 100% of patients with squamous cell lung carcinoma up to 3 years before clinical diagnosis. Moreover, the prevalence of these markers in sputum from cancer-free, high-risk subjects approximates lifetime risk for lung cancer. The use of aberrant gene methylation as a molecular marker system seems to offer a potentially powerful approach to population-based screening for the detection of lung cancer, and possibly the other common forms of human cancer.