The newly identified 3p21.3 tumour suppressor gene RASSF1A is methylated in the majority of primary lung tumours, lung tumour cell lines and in a variable percentage of breast tumours. To determine the extent of RASSF1A promoter hypermethylation in early lung tumorigenesis, we analysed sputum samples from lung cancer patients and from current and former smokers using a sensitive methylation-specific PCR (MSP) technique. We also analysed RASSF1A promoter region hypermethylation in trios of normal breast/invasive ductal breast carcinoma/ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) from breast cancer patients and DCIS without invasive cancer. We found that 50% of small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and 21% of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients had RASSF1A methylation, while one of two former smokers and four of 13 current smokers demonstrated RASSF1A methylation in sputum. Furthermore, two of the four current smokers and one former smoker showing RASSF1A methylation in their sputum developed cancer within 12-14 months of bronchoscopy. In our breast cancer trios, RASSF1A promoter hypermethylation was detected in 65% of invasive cancers, in 42% of corresponding DCIS but in none of the normal breast samples. In addition, we found that three out of 10 DCIS without invasive breast cancer also underwent RASSF1A promoter hypermethylation. Our findings suggest that RASSF1A promoter region hypermethylation may be a useful molecular marker for early detection of lung cancer. Furthermore, since RASSF1A promoter hypermethylation was detected in ductal carcinoma in situ, inactivation of RASSF1A may be an early event in breast tumorigenesis.