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What are the Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS)?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2018
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The myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) are a family of blood disorders caused by problems with the production of blood cells in the bone marrow. It is also referred to as "preleukemia," although this is a bit of a misnomer, as not all MDS patients develop leukemia. Treatment for this condition focuses on identifying the type a patient has and treating the symptoms and complications; as yet, these diseases have no cure.

In normal people, the stem cells in bone marrow produce the blood cells needed by the body. In people with this condition, the bone marrow is overactive, and it produces flawed blood cells which cannot be used by the body. As a result, the blood cells are destroyed before entering the bloodstream, resulting in a decrease in blood cells. Left untreated, severe anemia and a host of other problems can develop. Because MDS involves malfunctioning cells, some doctors consider it to be a form of cancer.

The signs of MDS are often subtle. Patients may feel fatigued sometimes, or develop unusually pale skin. Unusual bruising and bleeding are also associated with this condition, as are increased infections. In other cases, no symptoms develop, and the condition is diagnosed during a routine blood test. Diagnosis involves inspection of the blood cells under a microscope, and patients may also submit to bone marrow biopsy and other diagnostic procedures to narrow down the type of MDS involved, and which blood cells are affected.

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A number of diseases are included under the MDS umbrella, including refractory anemia, refractory cytopenia with multilineage dysplasia, refractory anemia with excess blasts, and refractory anemia with ringed sideroblasts. Each condition causes slightly different problems with different blood cells, requiring a different treatment approach.

Exposure to certain chemicals and radiation seems to increase the risk of developing MDS, as does smoking. Most people with this condition are over 60, suggesting that age is also a risk factor. Reducing exposure to potentially harmful substances can help to reduce the chance of developing MDS, and it will also protect the body from other harmful health conditions.

Common treatments for this condition include blood transfusions to address anemia caused by the disease, and in younger patients bone marrow transplants may be used. Drug therapy is also an option for some forms.

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