Abstract Background Recent studies have shown that microRNAs (miRNAs) play roles in tumorigenesis and are reliable classifiers of certain cancer types and subtypes. However, the role of miRNAs in the pathogenesis and diagnosis of small cell carcinoma (SCLC), the majority of which represent the most aggressive lung tumors, has not been investigated. Methods In order to explore miRNA involvement in the pathogenesis of small cell lung carcinoma (SCLC) and the potential role of miRNAs in SCLC diagnosis, we compared the miRNA expression profile of a set of SCLC cell lines to that of a set of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cell lines and normal immortalized human bronchial epithelial cells (HBECs) using microarray analysis. Results Our results show that miRNA profiles reliably distinguish SCLC cell lines from NSCLC and HBEC cell lines. Further analysis of the miRNA expression profile of the two subtypes of lung cancer cell lines indicates that the expression levels of the majority of the miRNAs that are differentially expressed in SCLC cells relative to NSCLC cells and HBECs show a progressive trend from HBECs to NSCLC cells to SCLC cells. Conclusions The distinctive miRNA expression signature of SCLCs relative to NSCLCs and HBECs suggests that miRNA profiles have the potential to serve as a diagnostic marker of SCLC lung tumors. The progressive trend of miRNA profile changes from HBECs to NSCLCs to SCLCs suggests a possible pathological relationship between SCLCs and NSCLCs, and suggests that the increasing dysregulation of miRNA expression may play a role in lung tumor progression. The specific role of these miRNAs in lung tumor pathogenesis and differentiation need to be investigated further in future studies.