Early diagnosis is the way to improve the rate of lung cancer survival, but is almost impossible today due to the lack of molecular probes that recognize lung cancer cells sensitively and selectively. We developed a new aptamer approach for the recognition of specific small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) cell-surface molecular markers. Our approach relies on cell-based systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment (cell-SELEX) to evolve aptamers for whole live cells that express a variety of surface markers representing molecular differences among cancer cells. When applied to different lung cancer cells including those from patient samples, these aptamers bind to SCLC cells with high affinity and specificity in various assay formats. When conjugated with magnetic and fluorescent nanoparticles, the aptamer nanoconjugates could effectively extract SCLC cells from mixed cell media for isolation, enrichment, and sensitive detection. These studies demonstrate the potential of the aptamer approach for early lung cancer detection.