Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)

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Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) is a type of blood cancer (leukemia) in which the bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside some bones of the body, produces blood cells that don’t mature. Over time, people with MDS have more abnormal blood cells than healthy ones, which can lead to conditions such as anemia, leukopenia (a drop in white blood cell count), and thrombocytopenia (a drop in platelet count). About 25% to 30% of people with MDS will develop acute myeloid leukemia, a fast-growing cancer of bone marrow cells.

Specialists at UT Southwestern Medical Center provide collaborative care for people with myelodysplastic syndromes, myelodysplastic/myeloproliferative neoplasms (MDS/MPN) overlap syndromes, and chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML) – which together constitute a group of disorders that affects cells in the bone marrow. Our team works to relieve symptoms, prevent complications, and improve patients’ quality of life.

The Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at UT Southwestern offers the most advanced treatments available for patients with MDS, MDS/MPN, and CMML. It is nationally recognized by the MDS Foundation as a center of excellence for the treatment of people with MDS. Our specialists are renowned for providing state-of-the-art care and advancing research related to cancer and blood diseases.

Causes and Risk Factors of MDS

Most cases of MDS have no obvious cause, while others are related to certain external factors.

Risk factors for MDS include:

  • Older age (most people with the disease are older than 65)
  • Chemotherapy or radiation treatment
  • Exposure to tobacco, pesticides, or other toxic chemicals
  • Exposure to heavy metals, such as lead or mercury

MDS Symptoms

Because failure of the bone marrow to produce normal mature cells is a slow process, MDS might not cause symptoms in its early stages.

As the disease progresses, patients might experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Recurrent infections, due to leukopenia (low white blood cell count)
  • Shortness of breath or unusual paleness, due to anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Easy or abnormal bruising or bleeding, due to thrombocytopenia (low blood platelet count)
  • Enlargement of the liver or spleen (for MDS/MPN)

Diagnosing MDS

At UT Southwestern, our blood cancer specialists have the expertise to diagnosis MDS, MDS/MPN, or CMML quickly and accurately. We begin with a review of a patient’s medical history, a discussion of symptoms, and a thorough physical exam. 

To confirm a diagnosis, we might recommend additional tests, such as:

  • Blood tests: Tests that identify the number of red cells, white cells, and platelets and look for changes in the appearance of various blood cells
  • Bone marrow aspirate and biopsy: Removal of a small amount of liquid bone marrow and piece of bone, typically from the hipbone, to look for specific abnormalities

Treatment for MDS

Treatment for MDS, MDS/MPN, or CMML depends on the severity and symptoms of the disease. Our recommended approach might include:

  • Watching and waiting, with regular lab tests and exams
  • Slowing the progression of the disease
  • Managing symptoms
  • Preventing complications such as infections or bleeding

At UT Southwestern, we have expertise in using the most advanced treatments for MDS, overlap disorders, or CMML, including:

  • Blood transfusions to replace red blood cells or platelets
  • Medications with the goal of increasing the number of blood cells, suppressing the immune system, stimulating blood cells to mature, or treating infections
  • Bone marrow transplant to replace abnormal bone marrow stem cells with healthy, donated cells

Support During and After Treatment

Our care teams offer nutritional, spiritual, and transitional guidance from the start of a patient’s journey, through treatment, and beyond. The overall physical and emotional well-being of our patients is vital to achieving a positive outcome. Learn more about our support services.