The clinical significance of ras oncogene expression in non-small cell lung cancer was evaluated in 116 surgically treated patients. Archival paraffin sections of the tumors were analyzed immunohistochemically using anti-ras p21 monoclonal antibody (MoAb) rp-35, and p21 staining was correlated with clinicopathologic parameters and survival. Positive reactions (+ and ++) were observed in 72.5% of the adenocarcinomas and 55.6% of the squamous cell carcinomas studied. The T1 tumors showed a ++ reaction less frequently than T2 and T3 tumors (P less than 0.05). Stage I tumors also were less reactive with MoAb rp-35 than tumors in more advanced stages (P less than 0.05). Survival analysis showed that patients with p21-negative tumors had significantly longer survival times (a 5-year survival rate of 64.1%) than those with p21 + tumors (38.0%, P less than 0.05) or those with p21 ++ tumors (11.5%, P less than 0.005). The significant correlation between p21 staining and patient survival was independent of histologic type, stage of disease, tumor or node status, and the resectability of tumors. On Cox's multivariate analysis, p21 staining was a major and independent prognostic determinant of survival. These results suggest that enhanced ras p21 expression may be one of the important biologic and clinical markers indicating the malignant potential of non-small cell lung cancer.