INTRODUCTION: Almost all small-cell lung cancers (SCLC) and carcinoid tumors express neuroendocrine differentiation (NED), and 10% to 20% of non-small-cell lung cancers (NSCLC) are associated with NED. Although distinct clinical features and histology of SCLC and carcinoid tumors are well recognized, the clinical significance and the molecular basis of NED in NSCLC remain unclear. METHODS: To explore the potential molecular pathway involved in NED of NSCLC and its clinical relevance, we conducted investigations using an NSCLC cell line (NCI-H157) as a NED induction model, and explored the potential intracellular signal transduction pathways involved in NED of NSCLC. We confirmed our findings using activators versus inhibitors to these signal transduction pathways in vitro. We also performed immunohistochemical stains of phospho-Erk1/2 of lung cancer specimens known to have NED and explored its clinical relevance. RESULTS: We discovered that NED of NSCLC was associated with the activation of Erk1/2-mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPK) signal transduction pathway, and the inhibition of the Akt signal transduction pathway. Using specific activator (Pb) and inhibitors (siRNA-Erk1/2 and U0126) to the Erk1/2-MAP-kinase pathway, as well as the inhibitor (LY294002) to the Akt pathway, we found that Erk1/2-MAP-kinase activation was essential for NED of NCI-H157 cells. Staining of Erk1/2-MAP-kinase pathway revealed a high rate of positivity in NSCLC tumors with NED when compared with other neuroendocrine lung tumors. CONCLUSIONS: To our knowledge, our findings are the first to describe the potential involvement of Erk/MAPK signal transduction pathway of NSCLC in the association with NED. Further investigation of the Erk/MAPK signal transduction pathway of NSCLC may yield discoveries in identifying specific molecular targets for the treatment of NSCLC with NED. Copyright © 2013 by the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer.