updated 6/9/2004 6:17:25 PM ET 2004-06-09T22:17:25

High concentrations of the virus that causes mononucleosis can help doctors predict the spread of a type of cancer that develops behind the nose, a study found.

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Epstein-Barr virus levels in the blood may also help predict the course of Hodgkin’s disease and some other cancers of the immune system, said lead researcher Jin-Ching Lin of Taiwan.

Researchers do not know exactly how the virus is connected to those cancers, but a link has been found in the past.

The study is too small to draw any final conclusions, said Dr. Ralph Vance, national volunteer president of the American Cancer Society.

“It will be interesting to see if it can be duplicated by others,” said Vance, a professor in the University of Mississippi School of Medicine’s department of oncology.

Lurks in cells
Epstein-Barr is one of the most common human viruses — as many as 95 percent of U.S. residents have been infected by age 40. Most have no symptoms, though up to half of those infected as adolescents and young adults develop mono, according to the National Institutes of Health.

After infection, the virus can lurk in a few cells, occasionally becoming active again.

Lin, of the department of radiation oncology at Taichung Veterans General Hospital, studied a cancer that is rare in the United States but common in southeastern China — cancer of the nasopharynx, an area above the soft palate.

All 99 patients in the study in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine got chemotherapy followed by radiation. Researchers looked for fragments of DNA from the Epstein-Barr virus in patients’ blood, before and after treatment.

The 18 who had relapses within two years all started with more than 1,500 fragments per milliliter. The 81 others all started with fewer.

After treatment, the virus could be found in only 10 patients’ blood; within two years, the cancer had spread in seven of them.

Epstein-Barr has also been associated with Burkitts lymphoma and T-cell lymphomas, as well as breast and stomach cancer.

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