Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy
(PML), also known as progressive multifocal leukoencephalitis, is a rare and usually fatal viral
disease that is characterized by progressive damage (-pathy
) or inflammation
) of the white matter
) of the brain
) at multiple locations (multifocal
). It occurs almost exclusively in people with severe immune deficiency
, e.g. transplant patients on immunosuppressive
medications, or AIDS
The cause of PML is a type of polyomavirus
called the JC virus
(JCV), after the initials of the patient in whom it was first discovered. The virus
is widespread, with 86% of the general population presenting antibodies, but it usually remains latent, causing disease only when the immune system has been severely weakened.
About 2-5% of AIDS patients develop PML. It is unclear why PML occurs more frequently in AIDS than in other immunosuppressive conditions; some research suggests that the effects of HIV on brain tissue, or on JCV itself, make JCV more likely to become active in the brain and increase its damaging inflammatory effects.
See also recent announcement by Roche US Pharm regarding PML and CellCept
There are case reports of PML being caused by pharmacological agents, although there is some speculation this could be due in part to the existing impaired immune response or 'drug combination therapies' rather than individual drugs. These include rituximab
, and various transplant drugs such as tacrolimus
PML is a demyelinating disease
, in which the myelin
sheath covering the axons
of nerve cells is gradually destroyed, impairing the transmission of nerve impulses. It affects the white matter, which is mostly composed of axons from the outermost parts of the brain (cortex
). Symptoms include weakness or paralysis, vision loss, impaired speech, and cognitive deterioration. PML is similar to another demyelinating disease, multiple sclerosis
, but since it destroys the cells that produce myelin (unlike MS, in which myelin itself is attacked but can be replaced), it progresses much more quickly. Most patients die within four months of onset.
PML destroys oligodendrocytes
and produces intranuclear inclusions.
PML is diagnosed by testing for JC virus DNA
in cerebrospinal fluid
or in a brain biopsy
specimen. Characteristic evidence of the damage caused by PML in the brain can also be detected on MRI
There is no known cure. In some cases, the disease slows or stops if the patient's immune system
improves; some AIDS patients with PML have been able to survive for several years, with the advent of highly active antiretroviral therapy
AIDS patients who start HAART after being diagnosed with PML tend to have a slightly longer survival time than patients who were already on HAART and then develop PML. A rare complication of effective HAART is immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome (IRIS), in which increased immune system activity actually increases the damage caused by the infection; though IRIS is often manageable with other types of infections, it is extremely dangerous if it occurs in PML.
Other antiviral agents that have been studied as possible treatments for PML include cidofovir and interleukin-2, but this research is still preliminary.
Cytarabine (also known as ARA-C), a chemotherapy drug used to treat certain cancers, has been prescribed on an experimental basis for a small number of non-AIDS PML patients. It is reported to have stabilized the neurological condition of a minority of these patients. One patient regained some cognitive function lost as a result of PML.