The use of brush cytology and directed biopsies for the detection of nasopharyngeal carcinoma and precursor lesions

Head Neck. 2001 Aug;23(8):637-45. doi: 10.1002/hed.1090.


Background: It has been proposed that nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) has an early noninvasive stage, designated nasopharyngeal intraepithelial neoplasia (NPIN). Hence, the detection and treatment of NPIN will prevent NPC from developing, and this would be similar to the strategies used for cervical cancer prevention. We wanted to ascertain the feasibility of using a brush sampler to collect cells for the cytologic diagnosis of NPIN and NPC. If successful, the technique could be used as a screening test in endemic areas.

Methods: A disposable sampler (Uterobrush) was used to collect nasopharyngeal mucosal brushings from 546 patients for cytologic examination. After this, most patients had biopsies, and this allowed histologic-cytologic correlation to be undertaken.

Results: In 528 patients (96.7%) there were satisfactory cytologic and biopsy specimens for evaluation. There were 149 cases with positive histology and 103 had positive cytology (specificity was 100% and the sensitivity was 69.1%). One case of NPC with concurrent NPIN was seen among the biopsy specimens, but no case of NPIN was detected cytologically.

Conclusions: The cytologic pickup of NPC was substantially lower than that obtained on biopsy. More importantly, NPIN was uncommon. Therefore, a screening test that depends on the collection of cells for the microscopic diagnosis of NPIN and NPC is unlikely to have a major impact on the incidence of NPC. Furthermore, obtaining a good cytologic specimen from the nasopharynx is not simple, and this further limits this technique for mass screening purposes. The concept of a cytologic test for NPC, similar to the Pap test for the prevention of uterine cervix cancer, has still to be realized.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Biopsy
  • Carcinoma in Situ / pathology*
  • Cytodiagnosis / methods*
  • Feasibility Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nasopharyngeal Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Specimen Handling*