Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy and the spectrum of JC virus-related disease

Nat Rev Neurol. 2021 Jan;17(1):37-51. doi: 10.1038/s41582-020-00427-y. Epub 2020 Nov 20.


Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) is a devastating CNS infection caused by JC virus (JCV), a polyomavirus that commonly establishes persistent, asymptomatic infection in the general population. Emerging evidence that PML can be ameliorated with novel immunotherapeutic approaches calls for reassessment of PML pathophysiology and clinical course. PML results from JCV reactivation in the setting of impaired cellular immunity, and no antiviral therapies are available, so survival depends on reversal of the underlying immunosuppression. Antiretroviral therapies greatly reduce the risk of HIV-related PML, but many modern treatments for cancers, organ transplantation and chronic inflammatory disease cause immunosuppression that can be difficult to reverse. These treatments - most notably natalizumab for multiple sclerosis - have led to a surge of iatrogenic PML. The spectrum of presentations of JCV-related disease has evolved over time and may challenge current diagnostic criteria. Immunotherapeutic interventions, such as use of checkpoint inhibitors and adoptive T cell transfer, have shown promise but caution is needed in the management of immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome, an exuberant immune response that can contribute to morbidity and death. Many people who survive PML are left with neurological sequelae and some with persistent, low-level viral replication in the CNS. As the number of people who survive PML increases, this lack of viral clearance could create challenges in the subsequent management of some underlying diseases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adoptive Transfer / methods*
  • Humans
  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • JC Virus*
  • Leukoencephalopathy, Progressive Multifocal / drug therapy
  • Leukoencephalopathy, Progressive Multifocal / virology*
  • T-Lymphocytes


  • Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors