BACKGROUND Even with early diagnosis and adequate resection, the 5-year survival rate for stage I lung cancer patients is around 60% to 70%. Overexpression of HER-2/neu protein is associated with poor prognosis in lung cancers. In this study, we evaluated the expression of HER-2/neu in cancer cells of lung and assessed their clinicopathologic and prognostic significance. METHODS From 1986 to 1995, clinical data on 42 consecutive patients who underwent complete surgical resection for stage I lung adenocarcinoma were collected. Expression of HER-2/neu in paraffin-embedded tumor samples was determined by immunohistochemistry and scored with a semiquantitative method. RESULTS Twenty-one of 42 patients were positive for HER-2/neu overexpression in tumor. Compared with patients with low HER-2/neu expression, patients with HER-2/neu overexpression had a significantly higher incidence of early tumor recurrence (p = 0.014). Survival was also significantly better in patients without HER-2/neu overexpression than in those with HER-2/neu overexpression (p = 0.0047). By univariate analysis, HER-2/neu overexpression and poor cell differentiation are two important factors correlated with poor prognosis. CONCLUSIONS Expression of HER-2/neu oncoprotein in stage I lung adenocarcinoma can predict the tumor's aggressiveness. Early tumor recurrence was frequently detected in patients with HER-2/neu overexpression. We recommend an individualized therapeutic strategy based on the level of HER-2/neu oncoprotein in the tumor cells.