Recent methodological developments allow expression measurement of many genes simultaneously, thereby revealing patterns of gene expression that can be related to phenotype. We hypothesized that through the use of such methods we could identify patterns of gene expression associated with the malignant phenotype in human bronchial epithelial cells (BEC). To test this hypothesis, a recently developed quantitative reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction method was used to assess simultaneously expression of 15 genes mechanistically associated with cell-cycle control (c-myc, E2F-1, p21, rb, PCNA, cyclin D2, cyclin D3, cyclin E, cdc2, CDK2, CDK4, mad, max p21, max p22, and p53) in normal cell cultures from five individuals and in nine different malignant BEC lines. Relative to the mean expression levels in cultured normal cell populations, expression of c-myc, E2F-1, PCNA, cyclin E, and CDK4 messenger RNA (mRNA) were significantly increased and expression of p21 and p53 mRNA were significantly decreased in one or two, but not all three subtypes (squamous, adenocarcinoma and small cell) of carcinoma cell lines evaluated. No single cell-cycle control gene discriminated all three subtypes from normal cell populations. In contrast, the gene expression index c-myc x E2F-1/p21 separated all carcinoma cell lines from all normal cell populations initially evaluated. This malignancy index was validated in an additional three cultured normal BEC and three carcinoma cell lines, as well as three pairs of matched primary normal bronchial epithelial and primary bronchogenic carcinoma samples, and three pairs of matched primary normal lung parenchyma and primary bronchogenic carcinoma tissue. Again, the c-myc x E2F-1/ p21 index successfully discriminated all cultured and primary normal from malignant samples and thereby had a predictive value of 1 (no false positives and no false negatives). We hypothesize that because of functional mutations in cell-cycle regulatory genes (e.g., p53 and/or rb), cells lose the ability to maintain a pattern of gene expression mechanistically associated with normal, division-limited homeostatic equilibrium. Because the c-myc x E2F-1/p21 gene expression index has high specificity for malignant tissue, it will allow confirmation that there is a significant amount of tumor tissue present in small (e.g., fine-needle) biopsy specimens prior to evaluating them for expression of other genes, such as those involved in chemoresistance or radioresistance. In addition, the goal of most gene therapy efforts is to alter levels of gene expression quantitatively. This index and others derived in a similar manner may better define potential gene therapy targets as well as response of targeted genes to therapy.