Performance and Operational Feasibility of Epstein-Barr Virus-Based Screening for Detection of Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma: Direct Comparison of Two Alternative Approaches

J Clin Oncol. 2023 Sep 10;41(26):4257-4266. doi: 10.1200/JCO.22.01979. Epub 2023 Jul 21.


Purpose: Two Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-based testing approaches have shown promise for early detection of nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC). Neither has been independently validated nor their performance compared. We compared their diagnostic performance in an independent population.

Methods: We tested blood samples from 819 incident Taiwanese NPC cases (213 early-stage, American Joint Committee on Cancer version 7 stages I and II) diagnosed from 2010 to 2014 and from 1,768 controls from the same region, frequency matched to cases on age and sex. We compared an EBV antibody score using immunoglobulin A antibodies measured by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (EBV antibody score) and plasma EBV DNA load measured by real-time PCR followed by next-generation sequencing (NGS) among EBV DNA-positive individuals (EBV DNA algorithm).

Results: EBV antibodies and DNA load were measured for 2,522 (802 cases; 1,720 controls) and 2,542 (797 cases; 1,745 controls) individuals, respectively. Of the 898 individuals positive for plasma EBV DNA and therefore eligible for NGS, we selected 442 (49%) for NGS testing. The EBV antibody score had a sensitivity of 88.4% (95% CI, 86.1 to 90.6) and a specificity of 94.9% (95% CI, 93.8 to 96.0) for NPC. The EBV DNA algorithm yielded significantly higher sensitivity (93.2%; 95% CI, 91.3 to 94.9; P = 1.33 × 10-4) and specificity (98.1%; 95% CI, 97.3 to 98.8; P = 3.53 × 10-7). For early-stage NPC, the sensitivities were 87.1% (95% CI, 82.7 to 92.4) for the EBV antibody score and 87.0% (95% CI, 81.9 to 91.5) for the EBV DNA algorithm (P = .514). For regions with a NPC incidence of 20-100/100,000 person-years (eg, residents in southern China and Hong Kong), these two approaches yielded similar numbers needed to screen (EBV antibody score: 5,656-1,131; EBV DNA algorithm: 5,365-1,073); positive predictive values ranged from 0.4% to 1.7% and 1.0% to 4.7%, respectively.

Conclusion: We demonstrated high sensitivity and specificity of EBV antibody and plasma EBV DNA for NPC detection, with slightly inferior performance of the EBV antibody score. Cost-effectiveness studies are needed to guide screening implementation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Viral
  • DNA, Viral / genetics
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections*
  • Feasibility Studies
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human / genetics
  • Humans
  • Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma / diagnosis
  • Nasopharyngeal Neoplasms* / diagnosis


  • DNA, Viral
  • Antibodies, Viral