ABSTRACT. The ability to visualize early stage lung cancer is important in the study of biomarkers and targeting agents that could lead to earlier diagnosis. The recent development of hybrid free-space 360-deg fluorescence molecular tomography (FMT) and x-ray computed tomography (XCT) imaging yields a superior optical imaging modality for three-dimensional small animal fluorescence imaging over stand-alone optical systems. Imaging accuracy was improved by using XCT information in the fluorescence reconstruction method. Despite this progress, the detection sensitivity of targeted fluorescence agents remains limited by nonspecific background accumulation of the fluorochrome employed, which complicates early detection of murine cancers. Therefore we examine whether x-ray CT information and bulk fluorescence detection can be combined to increase detection sensitivity. Correspondingly, we research the performance of a data-driven fluorescence background estimator employed for subtraction of background fluorescence from acquisition data. Using mice containing known fluorochromes ex vivo, we demonstrate the reduction of background signals from reconstructed images and sensitivity improvements. Finally, by applying the method to in vivo data from K-ras transgenic mice developing lung cancer, we find small tumors at an early stage compared with reconstructions performed using raw data. We conclude with the benefits of employing fluorescence subtraction in hybrid FMT-XCT for early detection studies.