Abstract Telomerase is a ribonucleoprotein DNA polymerase that maintains the telomeric region of chromosomes lost during successive rounds of cell division. We used the telomeric repeat amplification protocol (TRAP) assay to examine telomerase activity in bronchial lavage (BL) samples from individuals undergoing diagnosis of lung cancer. Telomerase activity was detected in 17 (47%) of 36 samples examined. In particular, 16 (70%) of 23 BL specimens obtained from lung cancer patients showed detectable telomerase activity, while only 1 of 13 (8%) specimens obtained from patients without lung cancer demonstrated activity ( P=0.00038). Moreover, 9 (90%) of 10 BL specimens, which were cytologically positive for lung cancer, were also positive for telomerase activity, while 7 (54%) of 13 cytologically negative BL specimens for lung cancer showed detectable telomerase activity. Detection of telomerase activity combined with cytology were able to identify 17 (74%) of 23 lung cancer cases whereas cytology alone identified 10 (43%) of 23 such cases ( P=0.035). Our findings indicate that telomerase is a specific marker for malignant lung disease and a potential complementary tool to cytology in the diagnosis of certain lung cancer cases.