Plasma DNA that circulates mainly as mononucleosomes is a cell death marker. Its significance and prognostic value in cancer as compared to other tumour markers was investigated in 68 patients hospitalised for lung cancers. Prognostic values of the various studied parameters were evaluated using the Cox's model. The cellular origin of plasma DNA was further investigated in nude mice transplanted with human lung adenocarcinoma. Plasma DNA concentrations were increased in cancer patients as compared to normal subjects (P < 0.01). They were higher in patients with extended (Stage 4) disease than in patients with limited stage disease (P < 0.05). Plasma DNA concentrations, serum lactate dehydrogenase activities and neuron-specific enolase concentrations were correlated all together in small cell lung carcinoma (SCLC) and in non-SCLC. Similar relationships were found between survival and each of these three cell death/tumour markers (P < 0.02-0.005). Plasma DNA from mice bearing human tumour hybridised with both mouse and human plasma DNA, while plasma DNA from endotoxin-injected mice hybridised only with mouse plasma DNA. In conclusion, in patients suffering from lung cancer, plasma DNA as well as LDH and NSE represent cell death markers that are correlated with survival. At a time when apoptosis pathways appear to be potential targets for cancer therapy, plasma DNA is a cell death/tumour marker that should be taken into account in studying the cancerous process in human diseases.