Early identification and subsequent intervention are needed to decrease the high mortality rate associated with lung cancer. The examination of bronchial epithelium for genetic changes could be a valuable approach to identify individuals at greatest risk. The purpose of this investigation was to assay cells recovered from nonmalignant bronchial epithelium by fluorescence in situ hybridization for trisomy of chromosome 7, an alteration common in non-small cell lung cancer. Bronchial epithelium was collected during bronchoscopy from 16 cigarette smokers undergoing clinical evaluation for possible lung cancer and from seven individuals with a prior history of underground uranium mining. Normal bronchial epithelium was obtained from individuals without a prior history of smoking (never smokers). Bronchial cells were collected from a segmental bronchus in up to four different lung lobes for cytology and tissue culture. Twelve of 16 smokers were diagnosed with lung cancer. Cytological changes found in bronchial epithelium included squamous metaplasia, hyperplasia, and atypical glandular cells. These changes were present in 33, 12, and 47% of sites from lung cancer patients, smokers, and former uranium miners, respectively. Less than 10% of cells recovered from the diagnostic brush had cytological changes, and in several cases, these changes were present within different lobes from the same patient. Background frequencies for trisomy 7 were 1.4 +/- 0.3% in bronchial epithelial cells from never smokers. Eighteen of 42 bronchial sites from lung cancer patients showed significantly elevated frequencies of trisomy 7 compared to never smoker controls. Six of the sites positive for trisomy 7 also contained cytological abnormalities. Trisomy 7 was found in six of seven patients diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, one of one patient with adenosquamous cell carcinoma, but in only one of four patients with adenocarcinoma. A significant increase in trisomy 7 frequency was detected in cytologically normal bronchial epithelium collected from four sites in one cancer-free smoker, whereas epithelium from the other smokers did not contain this chromosome abnormality. Finally, trisomy 7 was observed in almost half of the former uranium miners; three of seven sites positive for trisomy 7 also exhibited hyperplasia. Two of the former uranium miners who were positive for trisomy 7 developed squamous cell carcinoma 2 years after collection of bronchial cells. To determine whether the increased frequency of trisomy 7 reflects generalized aneuploidy or specific chromosomal duplication, a subgroup of samples was evaluated for trisomy of chromosome 2; the frequency was not elevated in any of the cases as compared with controls. The studies described in this report are the first to detect and quantify the presence of trisomy 7 in subjects at risk for lung cancer. These results also demonstrate the ability to detect genetic changes in cytologically normal cells, suggesting that molecular analyses may enhance the power for detecting premalignant changes in bronchial epithelium in high-risk individuals.