Epstein-Barr virus and carcinomas: undifferentiated carcinomas but not squamous cell carcinomas of the nasopharynx are regularly associated with the virus

J Pathol. 1991 Sep;165(1):17-24. doi: 10.1002/path.1711650105.


The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is consistently associated with undifferentiated nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC). There is, however, conflicting evidence as to whether squamous cell NPCs are also EBV-associated. Moreover, it has been proposed that other epithelial tumours, particularly thymomas and thymic carcinomas, should be included in the group of EBV-associated neoplasias. However, since the viral DNA in these studies was demonstrated only in extracted DNA, the cellular origin of the viral DNA is uncertain. We have therefore investigated 152 epithelial tumours from various sites for the presence of EBV-DNA by in situ hybridization with 35S-labelled probes. Sixty-eight of 77 undifferentiated NPCs showed an EBV-specific autoradiographic signal, thus confirming the strong association of this tumour type with EBV even in geographical areas where undifferentiated NPC is not endemic. None of eight squamous cell NPCs showed an EBV-specific signal. All of 15 carcinomas with a similar morphology to undifferentiated NPC but from different anatomic sites (thymus, tonsil, breast) were EBV-negative as were 9 thymomas, 26 squamous cell carcinomas of the palatine tonsil, and 14 cervical carcinomas. Our results therefore suggest a unique association of EBV with undifferentiated NPC and support concepts assigning different biological properties to undifferentiated NPC as compared with squamous cell NPC.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / etiology
  • DNA, Viral / analysis
  • Female
  • Herpesviridae Infections / complications*
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human* / genetics
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human* / isolation & purification
  • Humans
  • Nasopharyngeal Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Nasopharyngeal Neoplasms / microbiology
  • Nasopharyngeal Neoplasms / pathology
  • Tonsillar Neoplasms / microbiology
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / microbiology


  • DNA, Viral