The effect of the antiviral agent (S)-1-(3-hydroxy-2-phosphonylmethoxypropyl) cytosine (cidofovir) on the EBV-associated tumor nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) was evaluated in NPC xenografts in athymic mice. Intratumoral injection arrested tumor growth within 1 week, and by 4 weeks, tumors regressed to 8-75% (39 +/- 33%) of the original size, whereas control tumors injected with PBS grew to 282 +/- 25% of the original size. Ganciclovir slowed but did not arrest or cause regression of tumor growth. A striking antitumor effect was also produced by systemic administration; at 4 weeks, tumors were 79 +/- 49% of the original size, compared with 635 +/- 91% for the controls. Widespread apoptosis was detected after treatment for 2-6 days in C15 as well as two other NPC xenografts, C17 and C18; the latter NPCs have mutations in the p53 gene. These data indicate that cidofovir induces rapid cell death through apoptosis in EBV-transformed epithelial cells.