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Diagnosis of nasopharyngeal carcinoma by DNA amplification of tissue obtained by fine-needle aspiration

R Feinmesser, I Miyazaki, R Cheung, J L Freeman, A M Noyek, H M Dosch
New England Journal of Medicine 1992 January 2, 326 (1): 17-21

BACKGROUND: In nasopharyngeal carcinoma the primary lesion is often difficult to find. Metastatic lesions occur frequently but are difficult to distinguish from other head and neck tumors. The viral genome of the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) can be identified in the cells of this carcinoma.

METHODS: We used the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to test for the presence of EBV genomes in 15 samples of metastatic squamous-cell carcinoma of the neck obtained by fine-needle aspiration and in 26 samples obtained by biopsy of lymph nodes. For controls we used disease-free lymph nodes from 10 patients with various head and neck tumors, tonsillar tissue from 46 subjects, blood from 59 EBV-seropositive blood donors, and mononuclear cells from 8 patients with fatal lymphoproliferative lesions.

RESULTS: Of the 41 malignant lesions examined, only the nine nasopharyngeal carcinomas (one primary lesion and eight metastases) contained EBV genomes. None of the 20 nodes with other types of cancer, the 10 disease-free nodes, or any of the 105 normal control samples contained detectable EBV. In two patients with suspected metastases from occult primary tumors, the presence of EBV was predictive of nasopharyngeal carcinoma; in both cases overt nasopharyngeal carcinoma developed within one year.

CONCLUSIONS: In patients with suspected nasopharyngeal carcinoma, fine-needle aspiration can provide tissue for diagnosis by DNA amplification of EBV genomes. The presence of EBV in metastases from an occult primary tumor is predictive of the development of overt nasopharyngeal carcinoma.

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