BACKGROUND: A recurrent somatic mutation, E17K, in the pleckstrin homology domain of the AKT1 gene, has been recently described in breast, colorectal, and ovarian cancers. AKT1 is a pivotal mediator of signalling pathways involved in cell survival, proliferation and growth. The E17K mutation stimulates downstream signalling and exhibits transforming activity in vitro and in vivo. FINDINGS: We developed a sensitive high resolution melting (HRM) assay to detect the E17K mutation from formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded tumours. We screened 219 non-small cell lung cancer biopsies for the mutation using HRM analysis. Four samples were identified as HRM positive. Subsequent sequencing of those samples confirmed the E17K mutation in one of the cases. A rare single nucleotide polymorphism was detected in each of the remaining three samples. The E17K was found in one of the 14 squamous cell carcinomas. No mutations were found in 141 adenocarcinomas and 39 large cell carcinomas. CONCLUSION: The AKT1 E17K mutation is very rare in lung cancer and might be associated with tumorigenesis in squamous cell carcinoma. HRM represents a rapid cost-effective and robust screening of low frequency mutations such as AKT1 mutations in clinical samples.