Researchers are continuing to study nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) to understand how it develops and what it responds to. Their goal is to provide better outcomes and possible prevention.

NPC is a rare form of head and neck cancer. It begins in the nasopharynx, a small, hollow area that connects the nasal airways to the throat.

NPC affects about 1 out of every 100,000 people in the United States and most parts of the world. Occurrence rates are higher in certain regions, such as Asia and the Middle East. For example, it affects 15–30 out of every 100,000 people in China.

Research is ongoing to better understand NPC. This may help guide current treatments, find more effective treatment methods, and discover ways to prevent the cancer from developing in the first place.

This article explores the current research on NPC.

Though the exact cause is unknown, many cases of NPC occur due to the presence of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection. Researchers are continuing to explore how EBV and other risk factors, such as genetics, interact to cause the development of the cancer.

By understanding EBV better, treatments may become more individualized and effective. In a 2020 study, researchers noted that targeting EBV proteins may provide an effective form of treatment for NPC.

Researchers are continually looking into new ways to treat NPC. They test new or different treatment methods in clinical trials. Clinical trials involve a series of increasing large sample sizes of people to determine the overall safety and effectiveness of new treatment methods.

A person may be able to participate in a clinical trial, but they will need to apply and get accepted into the trial. Interested individuals can ask their doctor about any local trials that may be starting. They can also use online search tools by the National Cancer Institute and to find studies.


Chemotherapy is currently a standard treatment for NPC. Researchers are looking at how different chemo medications and the timing of their application affect treatment outcomes.

According to the American Cancer Society, researchers have shown that providing chemotherapy first and then a combination of chemotherapy and radiation improves outcomes in people with more advanced NPC.

A 2020 study notes that several studies have shown that the approach of providing chemotherapy first works well and improves outcomes by about 10%. They note that ongoing and upcoming studies are looking at how combining chemotherapy with immunotherapy may help further improve outcomes.

In a 2019 study, researchers tested different chemotherapy approaches on just under 500 people. They found that those who received induction chemotherapy before chemoradiation had improved outcomes than those who received only chemoradiation therapy.

Induction chemotherapy is the chemotherapy a person receives before undergoing additional cancer treatment. The goal is to destroy as many cancer cells as possible to offer the best possible chance of remission.


Radiation is currently a standard treatment option for NPC, but researchers continue to look for ways to improve the therapy to help improve outcomes for people with the cancer.

In a 2020 study, researchers outlined some newer techniques in radiation, including improved heavy ions — similar to protons used in X-rays — and newer carbon ions. They noted that studies show that the changes in technique are helping to reduce damage to healthy cells.

Proton therapy is still in the clinical trial stage in the United States and is not yet widely available. Not all insurance may cover it, but it has a promising future as a treatment technology.


Immunotherapy is a newer form of cancer treatment. The therapy helps to train the immune system to attack cancer cells in the body.

Currently, a doctor may prescribe medications, such as PD-1 inhibitors, to treat recurrent cases of NPC. Researchers are looking at the effect of adding PD-1 and other immunotherapy to earlier treatments.

PD-1 is short for programmed cell death. Immunotherapy using PD-1 inhibitors is also known as anti-PD-1 immunotherapy. PD-1 is a checkpoint inhibitor on immune cells. It binds to PD-1 on other cells and prevents T cells from attacking those other cells.

T cells are a type of white blood cells that help protect the body from infection and fight cancer. Some tumor cells contain large amounts of PD-1. This prevents T cells from doing their work. If PD-1 is inhibited, the body will be able to activate the T cells to help its immune system fight the cancer.

In a 2022 study, researchers noted that several studies have examined how adding PD-1 therapies to chemotherapy during earlier stages may help decrease tumor size. They suggested that additional research is necessary to fully understand the complicated relationship between EBV, the immune system, and using immunotherapy for NPC.

Predicting outcomes

Researchers are looking into how different biomarkers may affect outcomes and treatment success.

One area of interest is the EBV DNA. In a 2022 study, researchers looked at how the EBV DNA in the blood can act as a biomarker in the diagnostic process. Their study of 179 people found that the EBV DNA can help determine disease progression before radiographic findings and may help identify people who will respond well to personalized immunotherapy.

Their findings generally support an earlier study from 2018 that noted that the presence of the EBV DNA can affect outcomes. They noted that even small levels of EBV are associated with decreased overall survivability and negative outcomes associated with NPC.

Researchers continue to look at different forms of treatment for NPC. Exploring treatment options help identify new therapies, improve existing ones, and provide better-targeted therapies.

Research is looking at how EBV plays a role in the development and potential treatment of NPC. Some studies suggest that targeting the virus itself may help prevent or treat the cancer, which could improve outcomes for people.

Individuals interested in participating in a clinical study can discuss it with their doctor or treatment team. They may be able to provide recommendations on local studies they are eligible for. A person can also search online for clinical studies and apply for relevant ones.