Aberrant promoter methylation of normally unmethylated CpG-islands offers a promising tool for the development of molecular biomarkers. We investigated bronchial aspirates of patients admitted for suspected lung cancer with regard to the prevalence of aberrant methylation of potential marker genes. Applying quantitative methylation specific PCR (QMSP) we analyzed bronchial aspirates from 75 patients with primary lung cancer and 64 bronchial aspirates of patients diagnosed with benign lung disease for promoter methylation of 3 candidate marker genes (p16INK4a, RARB2 and SEMA3B). Hypermethylation of p16INK4a detected 18/75 (24%) cases with primary lung cancer and was present predominantly in squamous cell carcinomas (14/25; 56%). RARB2 QMSP at an assay threshold greater than 30 was found in 42/75 (56%) patients with lung cancer without relation to histological subtype. Patients with benign lung disease showed methylation of p16INK4a and a RARB2 QMSP at an assay threshold greater than 30 in 0/64 (0%) and 8/64 (13%) cases, respectively. Combining the 2 methylation markers, p16INK4a and RARB2, yielded a sensitivity of 69% and a specificity of 87% for the diagnosis of pulmonary malignancy. In contrast, SEMA3B displayed frequent promoter methylation (around 90%) both in bronchial aspirates of tumor and nontumor cases and thus was not suited as a biomarker. The results of this study indicate that QMSP analysis of p16INK4a and RARB2 may aid the diagnosis of primary lung cancer in bronchial aspirates. In particular, detection of p16INK4a methylation by QMSP may serve as a highly specific marker of pulmonary squamous cell carcinoma. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.