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Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS)

What is Myelodysplastic Syndrome?

These cancers occur when some blood stem cells in the bone marrow fail to mature into healthy blood cells.

The immature cells — or blasts — don't work properly, and they take up space in the bone marrow or the blood.

This leaves less room for the growth of healthy red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.

MDS tends to affect people over the age of 60. It's more common in men than in women. Symptoms rarely appear in the early stages.

Types of Myelodysplastic Syndromes

An inadequate number of healthy blood cells can lead to the following types of MDS:

  • Refractory anemia — this occurs when there aren't enough red blood cells.
  • Refractory anemia with:
    • Ringed sideroblasts — this involves a low red blood cell count and too much iron in the red blood cells.
    • Excess blasts — this involves too many blasts (up to 19 percent of the cells in the marrow) and not enough red blood cells. It may also affect white blood cells and platelets. Refractory anemia with excess blasts may turn into acute myeloid leukemia.
    • Excess blasts in transformation — this involves an abundance of blasts (up to 29 percent of the cells in the bone marrow).
  • Refractory cytopenia with multilineage dysplasia — in this condition, there aren't enough of at least two types of blood cells. Less than five percent of the cells in the marrow are blasts. It may progress to AML.
  • MDS associated with an isolated del(5q) chromosome abnormality — this genetically linked condition causes a shortage of red blood cells. Less than five percent of the cells in the bone marrow are blasts.
  • Unclassifiable MDS — blast percentages are normal, but there's a shortage of one type of blood cell.

Myelodysplastic Syndrome Prognosis

Prognosis depends on the type of syndrome and how well you respond to treatment.

Risk Factors for Myelodysplastic Syndromes

Common MDS risk factors include:

  • Age — people under 40 rarely get MDS. People over 60 are at higher risk.
  • Cancer treatment — chemotherapy for a different type of cancer — or for another blood cancer — can give rise to MDS. Risk increases when you combine chemo with radiation therapy.
  • Environmental exposure — exposure to radiation and benzene increase the risk.
  • Gender — men are more prone to MDS than women.
  • Smoking — smoking increases risk of MDS.
  • Genetic diseases — people at increased risk of MDS include those with:
    • Fanconi anemia.
    • Shwachman-Diamond syndrome.
    • Diamond Blackfan anemia.
    • Familial platelet disorder.
    • Severe congenital neutropenia.

How are Myelodysplastic Syndromes Diagnosed?

No screening tests exist specifically for MDS. People who have had chemo treatment in the past may benefit from follow-up exams and blood tests.

People with MDS often have low red blood counts. They may also lack enough white blood cells and platelets.

Some types of MDS involve the presence of blasts — or immature blood cells — in the blood.

Blood tests can detect if your blood has any abnormalities. But, you'll need a bone marrow biopsy to confirm a diagnosis of MDS.

Contact Us About Myelodysplastic Syndrome Care

To reach the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, call 412-864-6600.