Combined Epstein-Barr Virus and Human Papillomavirus Infection in Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma

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Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) has been shown to be a likely etiologic agent in nasopharyngeal carcinogenesis. Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) have previously been identified in numerous upper aerodigestive tract carcinomas. This pilot study was undertaken to investigate the prevalence of combined EBV and HPV infection in 17 patients with nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPCA) using polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The primary goal was to determine if the presence of HPV could be correlated with molecular, histologic, or clinical parameters. There were seven patients with undifferentiated NPCA (World Health Organization [WHO] type III) and 10 patients with squamous cell carcinoma (WHO type I). All 17 patients had stage IV disease at presentation. EBV was identified in 15 patients (88.2%), and HPV subtypes were identified in samples from nine patients (52.9%). All HPV-positive cases were also EBV positive. Western blot analysis of six samples showed a high level of expression of c-myc and cdc2 kinase and a low level of p53 protein in NPCAs that contained both HPV and EBV (n = 3). Increased expression of c-myc and cdc2 kinase was seen in the cases that contained EBV only, but to a lesser extent (n = 2). These findings indicate an effect of the virus on cellular proliferation and differentiation. Similarly, an elevated level of Rb protein was found only in the HPV-containing NPCAs. Moderate differentiation (keratinization) occurred in four of eight HPV-negative and none of the nine HPV-positive NPCAs. (All HPV-positive cases were poorly differentiated or undifferentiated.) This difference is statistically significant for this sample size (P < 0.03). There was a trend for the group that was HPV positive to have WHO III histology and for the HPV-negative group to have WHO I. The presence of HPV could not be correlated with any clinical parameters in this small group of patients with advanced disease; however, these data suggest that coexistence of EBV and HPV infection may be a factor in the pathogenesis of NPCA and may have an effect on regulation of cellular proliferation and differentiation.

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