The past three decades have borne witness to many advances in the understanding of the molecular biology and treatment of nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC), an Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-associated cancer endemic to southern China, southeast Asia and north Africa. In this Review, we provide a comprehensive, interdisciplinary overview of key research findings regarding NPC pathogenesis, treatment, screening and biomarker development. We describe how technological advances have led to the advent of proton therapy and other contemporary radiotherapy approaches, and emphasize the relentless efforts to identify the optimal sequencing of chemotherapy with radiotherapy through decades of clinical trials. Basic research into the pathogenic role of EBV and the genomic, epigenomic and immune landscape of NPC has laid the foundations of translational research. The latter, in turn, has led to the development of new biomarkers and therapeutic targets and of improved approaches for individualizing immunotherapy and targeted therapies for patients with NPC. We provide historical context to illustrate the effect of these advances on treatment outcomes at present. We describe current preclinical and clinical challenges and controversies in the hope of providing insights for future investigation.