Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a risk factor for lung cancer. Migration of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) into the blood stream is an early event that occurs during carcinogenesis. We aimed to examine the presence of CTCs in complement to CT-scan in COPD patients without clinically detectable lung cancer as a first step to identify a new marker for early lung cancer diagnosis. The presence of CTCs was examined by an ISET filtration-enrichment technique, for 245 subjects without cancer, including 168 (68.6%) COPD patients, and 77 subjects without COPD (31.4%), including 42 control smokers and 35 non-smoking healthy individuals. CTCs were identified by cytomorphological analysis and characterized by studying their expression of epithelial and mesenchymal markers. COPD patients were monitored annually by low-dose spiral CT. CTCs were detected in 3% of COPD patients (5 out of 168 patients). The annual surveillance of the CTC-positive COPD patients by CT-scan screening detected lung nodules 1 to 4 years after CTC detection, leading to prompt surgical resection and histopathological diagnosis of early-stage lung cancer. Follow-up of the 5 patients by CT-scan and ISET 12 month after surgery showed no tumor recurrence. CTCs detected in COPD patients had a heterogeneous expression of epithelial and mesenchymal markers, which was similar to the corresponding lung tumor phenotype. No CTCs were detected in control smoking and non-smoking healthy individuals. CTCs can be detected in patients with COPD without clinically detectable lung cancer. Monitoring "sentinel" CTC-positive COPD patients may allow early diagnosis of lung cancer.