Survival rates for lung cancer are low because patients have disseminated disease at diagnosis; therefore tests for early diagnosis are highly desirable. This pilot study investigated occurrence of chromosomal aneusomy in sputum from a 33 case-control cohort matched on age, gender, and date of sample collection. Subjects had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and > or = 30 pack-years of tobacco use, and aneusomy was tested using a multi-target DNA FISH assay (LAVysion, Abbott/Vysis). In specimens collected within 12 months of lung cancer diagnosis, abnormality was more frequent among the 18 cases (41%) than the 17 controls (6%; P = 0.04). Aneusomy had no significant association with cytologic atypia, which might indicate that molecular and morphological changes could be independent markers of tumorigenesis. Combining both tests, abnormality was found in 83% of the cases and 20% of the controls (P = 0.0004) suggesting that FISH may improve the sensitivity of cytologic atypia as a predictor of lung cancer.