5-Aza-2'-deoxycytidine (5-AZA-CdR, Decitabine) is a nucleoside analog and an active drug for the therapy of acute leukemia. The incorporation of 5-AZA-CdR into DNA blocks DNA methylation and can result in the activation of specific genes, such as tumor suppressor genes. This novel mechanism of action of 5-AZA-CdR stimulated our interest in its potential for cancer therapy in patients with lung cancer. Using a colony assay we observed that 5-AZA-CdR showed a potent antineoplastic effect against two human lung carcinoma cell lines. The objective of this preliminary phase I-II study was to evaluate the toxicity and clinical efficacy of 5-AZA-CdR in patients with stage IV non-small cell lung carcinoma. There were 15 patients that entered the clinical study. For nine assessable patients that received 5-AZA-CdR by a single 8 h i.v. infusion of 200-660 mg/m2 for one or more cycles, the median survival duration was 6.7 months, with three patients surviving more than 15 months. The steady-state plasma concentration of 5-AZA-CdR during the infusion was estimated in some patients and was in the same range that produced activation of a tumor suppressor gene in human lung tumor cell lines as reported by other investigators. The major side effect of 5-AZA-CdR was hematopoietic toxicity which required a 5-6 week recovery period before the next cycle of therapy. This study suggests that 5-AZA-CdR may have some clinical activity against metastatic lung carcinoma using this type of dose schedule.