In 1995, there will be 172,000 new cases of lung cancer diagnosed and 153,000 deaths from this disease in the United States. While the pathogenesis of the disease process is poorly understood, a growing body of evidence suggests that abnormalities in cellular regulatory genes may play an important role in the induction, maintenance and/or progression of some tumor types. These genes include both growth promoting oncogenes as well as growth inhibitory or suppressor genes. Included among these genetic sequences are several cellular transcription factors. A group of these factors including c-jun, c-fos and EGR1 are members of a class of genes known as immediate early genes whose expression are inducible by a variety of stimuli including mitogenic and differentiation inducing growth factors, indicating a potential important role for these genes in normal growth processes. Since these genes are involved in early regulation of cellular growth properties and at least two (c-jun and c-fos) can act as oncogenes, we wished to determine whether their expression levels were altered in human non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC) compared to normal lung tissue. To address this, Northern blot analyses were performed using c-fos, c-jun and EGR1 probes on RNA extracted from 101 NSCLC tumor specimens and adjacent uninvolved lung tissue. Analysis of this cohort revealed that 72% of the normal tissues demonstrate significantly greater expression of these transcription factors as compared to adjacent malignant tissue. Moreover, this expression pattern appeared to be coordinate for all three genes in the majority of cases. This differential expression pattern was confirmed at the protein level using an immunohistochemical approach with antibodies directed against the c-jun, c-fos and EGR1 gene products. Southern blot analyses demonstrated no gross alterations of these sequences at the DNA level, indicating that the observed differential expression pattern was not due to gross structural changes in the genes. These data suggest that down-regulation of these genes may be involved in the pathogenesis of lung cancer.