Pretherapy quantitative measurement of circulating Epstein-Barr virus DNA is predictive of posttherapy distant failure in patients with early-stage nasopharyngeal carcinoma of undifferentiated type

Cancer. 2003 Jul 15;98(2):288-91. doi: 10.1002/cncr.11496.


Background: Patients with International Union Against Cancer (UICC) Stage I-II nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) appear to have a relatively favorable prognosis and generally are excluded from trials of combined modality treatment. More recently, plasma/serum cell-free Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) DNA has been shown to be measurable in the majority of NPC patients at the time of diagnosis, and appears to have prognostic significance. However, within Stage I-II disease, in which failure events are infrequent, the prognostic impact of the pretreatment EBV DNA level has not been addressed to our knowledge. This issue has management implications because different therapeutic strategies currently are employed for patients with good-risk and those with poor-risk NPC.

Methods: A cohort of 90 patients with UICC Stage I-II NPC (World Health Organization Grade 2/3 histology) had their pretherapy plasma/serum EBV DNA levels determined by a quantitative polymerase chain reaction assay and correlated with the probability of posttherapy failure. All patients received radiation therapy only, except for three patients who also received concurrent chemotherapy. Kaplan-Meier plots of the probability of locoregional failure, distant failure, and cancer-specific survival were compared with reference to clinical stage and EBV DNA levels.

Results: With a median follow-up time of 45 months, 12 patients and 7 patients, respectively, had developed locoregional and distant failures, including 2 patients with both local and distant failures. Patients with distant failure had significantly higher pretherapy EBV DNA levels than those without failure (a median of 13,219 copies/mL [interquatile-range, 274,635 copies/mL] vs. a median of 423 copies/mL [interquatile-range, 2753 copies/mL]). The probability of distant failure was significantly higher in patients with high (>4000 copies/mL plasma) compared with low EBV DNA levels (P=0.0001, log-rank test) and for Stage IIB disease compared with Stage I and Stage IIA disease combined (P=0.0149, log-rank test), but was not significantly different between patients with Stage II and those with Stage I disease. The risks of locoregional failure were not significantly different between patients with high and those with low EBV DNA levels, and also was not significantly different between clinical substages. Approximately 35% of patients with Stage IIB disease were in the at-risk group for distant failure, as identified by high EBV DNA levels.

Conclusions: Within a group of patients with UICC Stage I-II NPC, the pretherapy plasma EBV DNA level was found to identify a poor-risk group with a probability of distant failure similar to that of patients with advanced stage disease. This group of patients may warrant management considerations currently applicable only to cases of Stage III-IV disease. The prognostic significance of designating Stage IIB disease as per the 1997 UICC staging was confirmed, although the pretherapy EBV DNA level appears to be a more powerful prognostic discriminator in patients with early-stage NPC.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • DNA, Viral / blood*
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections / complications*
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human / genetics
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human / isolation & purification*
  • Humans
  • Nasopharyngeal Neoplasms / blood*
  • Nasopharyngeal Neoplasms / radiotherapy
  • Nasopharyngeal Neoplasms / virology*
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Prognosis
  • Treatment Failure


  • DNA, Viral