Perspective actuale în carcinomul nazofaringian avansat şi metastatic

 Current perspectives in advanced and metastatic nasopharyngeal carcinoma

First published: 09 aprilie 2021

Editorial Group: MEDICHUB MEDIA

DOI: 10.26416/ORL.51.2.2021.4944


Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is a frequent type of cancer in Southeast Asia, with particular clinical presentation and high chemo- and radiosensitivity. In this article, we will review the current treatment options and future directions in advanced or meta­static nasopharyngeal carcinoma.

nasopharyngeal carcinoma, metastatic, platinum-based chemotherapy, Epstein-Barr virus, immunotherapy


Carcinomul nazofaringian este frecvent întâlnit în Asia de sud-est, având un aspect clinic particular şi o înaltă chimio- şi radio­sen­si­bi­li­tate. În acest articol, revedem opţiunile actuale şi direcţiile vii­toare de tratament în carcinomul nazofaringian avansat şi metastatic.


Nasopharyngeal carcinoma develops from epithelial cells of nasopharynx and is clinically occult in early stages.

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma has a wide spectrum of clinical presentations, with hypoaesthesia, diplopia or facial numbness, due to cranial nerve damage, and neck masses.

An important hallmark of this type of cancer is the early metastasis, and the bones are the most affected(1).

Its incidence is related to geographical variations, with the highest prevalence described in Southeast Asia. Men are two or threefold more likely to develop the disease, with an incidence peak at 50-59 years of age(2).

Therapy of advanced and metastatic nasopharyngeal carcinoma

Even though radiotherapy techniques have been im­proved, providing up to 80% regional control rate of naso­pharyngeal carcinoma, there is an increased risk of dis­tant metastases. Consequently, an adequate systemic the­rapy is essential(3).

First-line treatment

A randomized trial compared five different cisplatin-based regimens on 822 treatment-naive patients with advanced nasopharyngeal cancer. Cisplatin was administered with 5-FU, paclitaxel, gemcitabine, bleomycin plus 5-FU, or paclitaxel plus 5-FU, until disease progression or unacceptable drug toxicity.

This study supports the high platinum-based chemosensitivity of nasopharyngeal cancer, with similar overall survival rates among the five therapeutic groups (between 74% and 82%, at one year of follow-up)(4).

Platinum-based doublet regimens have been shown to improve the survival in a phase III Chinese clinical trial. This multicentre, phase III study randomly assigned 362 patients with recurrent or metastatic nasopharyngeal carcinoma, to receive up to six cycles of treatment with gemcitabine and cisplatin, or fluorouracil and cisplatin. The results showed that gemcitabine plus cisplatin enhances progression-free survival (7 months versus 5.6 months), supporting this doublet chemotherapy as the standard of care in the first-line metastatic disease(5-6).

Consolidation radiotherapy

When patients have metastatic disease at the initial diagnosis, there is a high risk of failure after systemic chemotherapy. Specialists consider that, despite the ability of chemotherapy to prolong the survival, consolidation radiotherapy improves the treatment outcome.

Therefore, the NCCN guideline recommends radio­the­rapy in patients with metastatic disease and complete res­ponse to systemic chemotherapy(5).

This concept is supported by a clinical trial that examined the role of radiation therapy in the treatment of 126  patients with de novo metastatic nasopharyngeal carcinoma and complete or partial imaging RECIST response, after three cycles of cisplatin plus fluorouracil. The patients were randomized to receive chemotherapy alone or associated with locoregional radiation therapy, up to six cycles, or until high toxicity, death or disease pro­gres­sion. The study met its primary end point of increased overall survival in favor of radiotherapy ad­ded to chemotherapy (76.4% versus 54.5%, p=0.004). Re­gar­ding adverse reactions, hematologic toxic effects were equaly reported in the two therapeutic arms, but higher spe­cific radiotherapy adverse effects were reported in the combination arm (8.1% acute grade 3-4 dermatitis, and 33.9% grade 3-4 mucositis)(7).

Molecularly targeted therapy

Given the common overexpression of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) in nasopharyngeal car­ci­noma, studies with several EGFR targeted molecules have been attempted. Cetuximab, a chimeric monoclonal anti­body EGFR inhibitor, was tested associated with car­bo­pla­tin in recurrent or metastatic nasopharyngeal car­ci­noma. This phase II study, which included  60 patients with EGFR expressing and progression after platinum-based regimens, demonstrated clinical activity with partial response in 11.7% of patients and stable disease responses in 48.3%(8).

Is plasma Epstein-Barr virus DNA a strong predictor for metastatic nasopharyngeal carcinoma?

According to World Health Organization, naso­pha­ryngeal carcinoma is widespread in the southern Chi­na and Hong Kong, and is mostly nonkeratinizing and significantly associated with Epstein-Barr virus in­fec­tion. Although Epstein-Barr virus infection is associated with almost all undifferentiated nasopharyngeal car­ci­no­mas and some salivary gland cancers, this virus is not iden­tified in other head and neck tumors(9).

Several studies showed that PCR quantification of plas­ma Epstein-Barr virus can have a useful predictive and prognostic value in metastatic nasopharyngeal car­ci­noma treated by radiotherapy(10-12).

One trial including 127 patients with meta­static Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) associated with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, treated with palliative chemotherapy, demonstrated that both pretreatment and posttreatment plasma EBV DNA were strong predictors of survival. Plasma EBV DNA levels were assessed at baseline and after each chemotherapy courses. Higher progresion-free survival (PFS) and overall survival (OS) were described in subjects with lower baseline plasma EBV DNA (PFS of 8.2 versus 5.8 months, p<0.001, and OS of 18.9 versus 15.3 months, p<0.001), after 21 months of follow-up. Moreover, patients with undetectable plasmatic levels posttreatment showed important complete or partial response rates. For example, seven patients with complete responses had a posttreatment plasma EBV DNA decline to undetectable level, compared to nine patients with maintained high plasma concentrations and disease progression(13).

Epstein-Barr virus related nasopharyngeal carcinoma supplies rational targets for immunotherapy. Diverse types of immunotherapies are actively studied, including therapeutic Epstein-Barr virus vaccination, specific adoptive immunotherapy, or checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy.

Adoptive immunotherapy

An important approach in treating Epstein-Barr virus related nasopharyngeal carcinoma is to stimulate specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes to target viral antigens expressed on cancer cells membrane.

Over 50% of nasopharyngeal carcinoma present high immunogenic viral antigens (LMPs, Epstein-Barr nu­clear antigen 1 and 2 latent membrane proteins). These anti­gens determine an immune response via cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) against tumor cells(14).

In 2001, Daniel Chua and his collegues published a pilot study regarding the treatment of nasopharyngeal carcinoma using adoptive cytotoxic T lymphocytes therapy(15).

Since then, several clinical trials have been tested the EBV cytotoxic T lymphocytes (EBV-CTL) immunotherapy. A phase 1/2 study on 21 patients with recurrent or metastatic EBV‐associated nasopharyngeal carcinoma evaluated the effect of autologous EBV immunotherapy. EBV-CTL were generated from the blood of eligible patients, while patients received palliative chemotherapy. Patients who progressed on standard chemotherapy received investigational immunotherapy intravenously, with EBV cytotoxic T lymphocytes, which multiplied and attacked EBV-infected cells.

Promising results have been described, with a median PFS of 2.2 months and median OS of 16.7 months. It is important to mention the fact that one complete response was reported after three cycles of immunotherapy, with over 100 months free of disease, and two other patients had stable disease for 18.7 months and 6.5 months, respectively(16).

Therapeutic vaccines

Cancer vaccines attempt to initiate and promote a host immune response, by delivering selected tumor-as­­sociated antigens.

The first therapeutic vaccination study for naso­pha­ryn­geal carcinoma included injections in the inguinal lymph nodes with autologous dendritic cell, capable to ac­ti­vate naive CD4+ and CD8+ T lymphocytes, covered by Epstein-Barr LMP2 epitope peptides.

There were enrolled 16 patients with metastatic na­so­pharyngeal carcinoma treated with conventional chemotherapies. Vaccination improved specific T cell immune responses in nine patients, and partial tumor decrease was registered in two patients(17).

A trial of similar design, using autologous dendritic cell vaccination on 38 patients with advanced Epstein-Barr virus associated with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, after radiotherapy, demonstrated encouraging data, with a significant decrease of plasmatic EBV-DNA level in nine patients (p=0.0310)(18).

Checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy

As mentioned before, virus-induced neoplasia make immunotherapy a promising treatment option, because proteins in the structure of the viruses are strong immunogens.

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma exhibits the expression of PD-1 in 89-95% of cases. This frequent expression pro­vides a significant therapeutic outcome with PD-1 or PD-L1 inhibitors(19).

Findings from the multicohort, phase Ib KEYNOTE-028 trial demonstrated that pembrolizumab eli­cits durable responses in previously treated patients with recurrent or metastatic nasopharyngeal carcinoma, and over 1% PD-L1 expression. A total of 27 pretreated pa­tients received pembrolizumab up to two years or until se­vere toxicity or disease progression. Pembrolizumab in monotherapy became a promising therapeutic option, with 6.5 months of progression-free survival, and fast and efficient  response (1.9 months time to response, and 17.1 months the duration of response)(20).

An international, phase II trial of the Mayo Clinic Consortium (NCI-9742) aimed to prove the efficiency of nivolumab in 44 patients with previously platinum-based treated, recurrent or metastatic nasopharyngeal carcinoma. The subjects recieved nivolumab until disease progression. After 12.5 months of follow-up, the objective response rate with nivolumab was 20.5%. Regarding PD-L1 expression, the patients who tested positive for PD-L1 expression presented a higher response (33%) compared to negative PD-L1 patients (13%)(21).

CheckMate 358 was a phase I/II multicohort trial of nivolumab in five virus-associated tumors (cervical, vulvar and vaginal, anal, penian, nasopharyngeal). One cohort evaluated the subsequent therapy with nivo­lu­mab in patients with recurrent or metastatic PD-L1-un­selected, Epstein-Barr associated nasopharyngeal car­ci­noma, treatment-naive, or previously treated with maximum two therapeutic lines. The therapy was ad­mi­nistered every two weeks until disease progression or severe toxicity, and after a median of 26 weeks of fol­low-up, nivolumab had a 20.8% objective response rate. There must be noted that therapeutically naive patients had a superior outcome (40% objective response rate versus 15.8%)(22).


To date, the combination of cisplatin and gemcitabine has proven efficacy as first-line chemotherapy in patients with recurrent or metastatic nasopharyngeal carcinoma.

The optimal integration of the immune-based treatments has led to great progress in patient survival. Moreover, some researchers have speculated that plasma EBV DNA levels can be used as a biomarker for prognosis, monitoring or evaluation. However, second lines of therapy in this malignancy remain a challenge and the enrolment in clinical trials should be done whenever possible.


  1. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/epidemiology-etiology-and-diagnosis-of-nasopharyngeal-carcinoma?search=nasopharyngeal%20carcinoma%20clinical%20presentation&source=search_result&selectedTitle=1~81&usage_type=default&display_rank=1#H159698614, accesed on 08.12.2020

  2. Brennan B. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Orphanet J Rare Dis. 2006 Jun 26;1:23. 

  3. Kam MK, Leung SF, Zee B, et al. Prospective randomized study of intensity-modulated radiotherapy on salivary gland function in early-stage nasopharyngeal carcinoma patients. J Clin Oncol. 2007 Nov;25(31):4873–4879.

  4. Jin Y, Shi YX, et al. Comparison of five cisplatin-based regimens frequently used as the first-line protocols in metastatic nasopharyngeal carcinoma. J Cancer Res Clin Oncol. 2012 Oct;138(10):1717-25. Erratum in: J Cancer Res Clin Oncol. 2015 Apr;141(4):767.

  5. https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/head-and-neck.pdf, accessed on 05.12.2020.

  6. Zhang L, Huang Y, et al. Gemcitabine plus cisplatin versus fluorouracil plus cisplatin in recurrent or metastatic nasopharyngeal carcinoma: a multicentre, randomised, open-label, phase 3 trial. Lancet. 2016 Oct 15;388(10054):1883-1892. Erratum in: Lancet. 2016

  7. You R, Liu YP, et al. Efficacy and Safety of Locoregional Radiotherapy with Chemotherapy vs Chemotherapy Alone in De Novo Metastatic Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma: A Multicenter Phase 3 Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Oncol. 2020 Sep 1;6(9):1345-1352.

  8. Chan AT, Hsu MM, et al. Multicenter, phase II study of cetuximab in combination with carboplatin in patients with recurrent or metastatic nasopharyngeal carcinoma. J Clin Oncol. 2005 May 20;23(15):3568-76.

  9. Tsao S, et al. Epstein-Barr virus infection and nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences. 2017 Oct 19; 372(1732): 20160270.

  10. Wang WY, Twu CW, Chen HH, et al. Plasma EBV DNA clearance rate as a novel prognostic marker for metastatic/recurrent nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Clin Cancer Res. 2010;16:1016-1024.

  11. Leung SF, Zee B, Ma BB, et al. Plasma Epstein-Barr viral deoxyribonucleic acid quantitation complements tumornode-metastasis staging prognostication in nasopharyngeal carcinoma. J Clin Oncol. 2006;24:5414-5418.

  12. Lin JC, Wang WY, Chen KY, et al. Quantification of plasma Epstein-Barr virus DNA in patients with advanced nasopharyngeal carcinoma. N Engl J Med. 2004;350:2461-2470.

  13. An X, Wang FH, et al. Plasma Epstein-Barr virus DNA level strongly predicts survival in metastatic/recurrent nasopharyngeal carcinoma treated with palliative chemotherapy. Cancer. 2011 Aug 15;117(16):3750-7.

  14. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/treatment-of-recurrent-and-metastatic-nasopharyngeal-carcinoma?search=metastatic%20nasopharyngeal%20cancer&source=search_result&selectedTitle=1~150&usage_type=default&display_rank=1#H2286769861, accesed on 06.12.2020

  15. Chua D, Huang J, Zheng B, Lau SY, Luk W, Kwong DL, Sham JS, Moss D, Yuen KY, Im SW, Ng MH. Adoptive transfer of autologous Epstein-Barr virus-specific cytotoxic T cells for nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Int J Cancer. 2001 Oct 1;94(1):73-80.

  16. Huang J, Fogg M, et al. Epstein-Barr virus-specific adoptive immunotherapy for recurrent, metastatic nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Cancer. 2017 Jul 15;123(14):2642-2650.

  17. Lin CL, Lo WF, Lee TH, et al. Immunization with Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) peptide-pulsed dendritic cells induces functional CD8+ T-cell immunity and may lead to tumor regression in patients with EBV-positive nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Cancer Res. 2002;62:6952-8.

  18. Li F, Song D, Lu Y, Zhu H, Chen Z, He X. Delayed-type hypersensitivity (DTH) immune response related with EBV-DNA in nasopharyngeal carcinoma treated with autologous dendritic cell vaccination after radiotherapy. J Immunother. 2013 Apr;36(3):208-14.

  19. Hsu C, Lee S, Ejadi S, et al. Antitumor activity and safety of pembrolizumab in patients with PD-L1-positive nasopharyngeal carcinoma: Interim results from a phase 1b study. Annals of Oncology. 2015 Sep;51(suppl 9):93-102.

  20. Hsu C, Lee SH, et al. Safety and Antitumor Activity of Pembrolizumab in Patients with Programmed Death-Ligand 1-Positive Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma: Results of the KEYNOTE-028 Study. J Clin Oncol. 2017 Dec 20;35(36):4050-4056.

  21. Ma BBY, Lim WT, et al. Antitumor Activity of Nivolumab in Recurrent and Metastatic Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma: An International, Multicenter Study of the Mayo Clinic Phase 2 Consortium (NCI-9742). J Clin Oncol. 2018 May 10;36(14):1412-1418. Erratum in: J Clin Oncol. 2018 Aug 1;36(22):2360. 

  22. Delord JP, Hollebecque A, et al. An open-label, multicohort, phase I/II study to evaluate nivolumab in patients with virus-associated tumors (CheckMate 358): Efficacy and safety in recurrent or metastatic (R/M) nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC). Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2017 May;35(15 suppl):6025-6025.

Articole din ediţiile anterioare

CERVICAL PATHOLOGY | Ediţia 1 42 / 2019

Adenopatia metastatică primitivă cervicală din perspectiva medicului ORL

Daniela Vrînceanu, Mihai Dumitru, Adriana Nica

Metastazele primare de la nivelul ganglionilor cervicali sunt de­fi­nite în contextul unei tumori primare necunoscute de la ni­velul tractului resp...

01 martie 2019