Myelodysplastic Syndrome

Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) affects how blood cells--white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets--are produced. MDS begins when bone marrow stem cells become genetically altered and begin inefficiently producing healthy blood cells and/or making defective blood cells. These defective blood cells often do not function as healthy cells should, and they tend to die earlier than healthy blood cells. The syndrome also tends to destroy healthy blood cells. Myelodysplastic syndrome occurs at a rate of 4.8 cases for every 100,000 people1.


Note about this diagram: A blood stem cell goes through several transformations to become a red blood cell, platelet, or white blood cell. In MDS, genetic changes in the blood stem cells affect the normal development of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

What are the different types of myelodysplastic syndrome?

The system used today to classify the types of myelodysplastic syndrome is maintained by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO system recognizes 7 types of MDS. Read more about these types at:

What are some symptoms of myelodysplastic syndrome?

Often MDS does not show symptoms in early stages. And, if there are any symptoms, they may be mild. Some symptoms of MDS may include:

  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss; loss of appetite
  • Petechiae (pin-sized red spots under the skin)
  • Bone pain
  • Fever
  • Frequent infections
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pale skin

How is myelodysplastic syndrome diagnosed?

Blood tests for MDS include complete blood counts (CBCs) and blood cell examinations. These tests evaluate a patient’s blood cell counts and examine the appearance of blood cells. Blood abnormalities may suggest MDS, but an exact diagnosis cannot be made without examining a sample of bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow tests examine samples of bone marrow taken either from a bone marrow aspiration or biopsy. The marrow is examined for the size and shape of its cells to determine the presence of MDS.

Other tests for MDS may include: immunocytochemistry, flow cytometry, cytogenetics, and molecular genetic studies

What are the stages of myelodysplastic syndrome?

The WHO Prognostic Scoring System (WPSS) accounts for three different factors to stage myelodysplastic syndrome. These factors include:

  • The type of MDS based on the WHO classification
  • Chromosome abnormalities
  • Whether or not the patient requires blood transfusions

What are the treatment options for myelodysplastic syndrome?

This myelodysplastic syndrome treatment information does not outline the particular treatment(s) a patient will receive. Rather, it provides general information about the typical treatments used for this type of cancer.

Palliative/supportive care is a combination of therapies used to relieve a patient’s symptoms and side effects. Typically, MDS supportive care may include blood transfusions and drug therapies aimed at reducing the side effects of the disease or its treatment.

Growth factors are hormone-like substances that stimulate bone marrow to produce healthy blood cells. Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. This type of treatment is useful for diseases such as MDS, which are not localized to one part of the body.

Stem cell transplant is the only treatment that can cure MDS. In this treatment, a patient is given high doses of chemotherapy aimed at killing bone marrow cells. After chemotherapy, the patient is given healthy blood-forming stem cells to replace the abnormal ones.

What are the risk factors of myelodysplastic syndrome?

  • Chemotherapy exposure: Having previous chemotherapy treatment is associated with an increased incidence of MDS; MDS caused by chemotherapy is known as secondary MDS or treatment-related MDS.
  • Genetics: Abnormal genes that are passed down from one or both parents can cause bone marrow problems. People who inherit these genes are more likely to develop MDS.
  • Smoking
  • Radiation/Chemical Exposure: Chronic exposure to radiation and certain chemicals, such as benzene, have been connected with MDS.
  • Age: The risk of MDS increases with age. MDS rarely occurs in people younger than 40 years of age.
  • Gender: MDS is more likely to occur in men.

How is myelodysplastic syndrome prevented?

  • Quitting or never begin smoking tobacco
  • Avoiding dangerous industrial chemicals 
Mikayla D. Williams , BS student, Nursing , The College of Nursing, The University of Arizona
Michael Principe, MA, Information Resources and Library Science , The University of Arizona
Works Cited: 
American Cancer Society (2014). Myelodysplastic syndrome.
Works Consulted: 
Mayo Clinic (2014). Myelodysplastic syndrome.
American Society of Clinical Oncology (2014). Myelodysplastic Syndromes--MDS.
MD Anderson Cancer Center (2014). Myelodysplastic Syndrome.