The current mortality rate for lung cancer exceeds 85%, as it has for the last 3 decades. This statistic reflects the utility of the major diagnostic tool that has been used during this period to diagnose lung cancer: the chest X-ray. The overwhelming majority of new cases of lung cancer that are detected with chest X-rays involve individuals who already have regional or distant metastatic disease. Because the systemic treatment of this disease has not improved greatly, patients with metastatic disease rarely are cured. This article reviews the issues involved with the development of sputum-based cellular diagnostics for early stage lung cancer. The biomarker, heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoprotein A2/B1, is the lead marker for this approach. It has been used in several studies in independent cohorts that have suggested that its overexpression in bronchial epithelial cells is associated highly with the development of lung cancer. This marker is detectable 1 year or more prior to the detection of lung cancer by chest X-ray. Finding this early airway-confined phase of lung cancer may allow for the evolution of new management approaches for very early stage lung cancer. Research activities, such aerosolized chemoprevention, are discussed.