Background: The patient with nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) frequently is initially seen with regional node dissemination. Preliminary investigations suggest that the presence of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) genomes in neck metastases from an occult primary may be diagnostic and predictive of NPC. The goal of this study was to test this proposition.
Methods: The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was used to detect the presence of EBV DNA in fine-needle aspirate (FNA) samples obtained from malignant neck nodes. Control samples were obtained from other locations in the head and neck.
Patients: The patients in this study were evaluated at the Toronto Princess Margaret Hospital, a province-wide tertiary-care cancer treatment center. Of the 23 patients evaluated with malignant neck masses, 6 had NPC, 5 patients had metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of an unknown primary, and 12 patients served as controls with other known head and neck carcinomas. One of the patients initially diagnosed as an unknown primary later demonstrated NPC. FNA specimens were also obtained from 24 normal parotid, submandibular, or thyroid glands for comparison.
Results: In the samples with sufficient DNA for analysis, EBV was detected in 5 of 5 neck nodes from patients with known NPC. EBV was also detected in the neck node of a patient who went on to develop NPC and in a cervical node from 1 of 2 patients in whom the primary tumor remained unknown. None of the evaluable control neck nodes of FNA controls from other sites demonstrated EBV.
Conclusions: These results demonstrate the utility of NPC-diagnostic EBV gene amplification in FNA samples of neck metastases and suggest that the presence of the EBV genome in FNA samples of neck nodes is predictive of the presence of NPC.