Nasopharyngeal Cancer: Molecular Landscape

J Clin Oncol. 2015 Oct 10;33(29):3346-55. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2015.60.7846. Epub 2015 Sep 8.


Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) is a unique epithelial malignancy arising from the superior aspect of the pharyngeal mucosal space, associated with latent Epstein-Barr virus infection in most cases. The capacity to characterize cancer genomes in unprecedented detail is now providing insights into the genesis and molecular underpinnings of this disease. Herein, we provide an overview of the molecular aberrations that likely drive nasopharyngeal tumor development and progression. The contributions of major Epstein-Barr virus-encoded factors, including proteins, small RNAs, and microRNAs, along with their interactions with pathways regulating cell proliferation and survival are highlighted. We review recent analyses that clearly define the role of genetic and epigenetic variations affecting the human genome in NPC. These findings point to the impact of DNA methylation and histone modifications on gene expression programs that promote this malignancy. The molecular interactions that allow NPC cells to evade immune recognition and elimination, which is crucial for the survival of cells expressing potentially immunogenic viral proteins, are also described. Finally, the potential utility of detecting host and viral factors for the diagnosis and prognosis of NPC is discussed. Altogether, the studies summarized herein have greatly expanded our knowledge of the molecular biology of NPC, yet much remains to be uncovered. Emerging techniques for using and analyzing well-annotated biospecimens from patients with NPC will ultimately lead to a greater level of understanding, and enable improvements in precision therapies and clinical outcomes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cell Proliferation
  • DNA Methylation
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections / genetics*
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections / virology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans
  • MicroRNAs / genetics
  • Nasopharyngeal Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Nasopharyngeal Neoplasms / virology*
  • RNA, Viral / genetics
  • Risk Factors


  • MicroRNAs
  • RNA, Viral