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Home > Health Library > Myelodysplastic Syndromes Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Myelodysplastic syndromes are a group of cancers in which immature blood cells in the bone marrow do not mature or become healthy blood cells.
In a healthy person, the bone marrow makes blood stem cells (immature cells) that become mature blood cells over time.
Anatomy of the bone. The bone is made up of compact bone, spongy bone, and bone marrow. Compact bone makes up the outer layer of the bone. Spongy bone is found mostly at the ends of bones and contains red marrow. Bone marrow is found in the center of most bones and has many blood vessels. There are two types of bone marrow: red and yellow. Red marrow contains blood stem cells that can become red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets. Yellow marrow is made mostly of fat.
A blood stem cell may become a lymphoid stem cell or a myeloid stem cell. A lymphoid stem cell becomes a white blood cell. A myeloid stem cell becomes one of three types of mature blood cells:
Blood cell development. A blood stem cell goes through several steps to become a red blood cell, platelet, or white blood cell.
In a patient with a myelodysplastic syndrome, the blood stem cells (immature cells) do not become mature red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets in the bone marrow. These immature blood cells, called blasts, do not work the way they should and either die in the bone marrow or soon after they go into the blood. This leaves less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets to form in the bone marrow. When there are fewer healthy blood cells, infection, anemia, or easy bleeding may occur.
The different types of myelodysplastic syndromes are diagnosed based on certain changes in the blood cells and bone marrow.
Age and past treatment with chemotherapy or radiation therapy affect the risk of a myelodysplastic syndrome.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get a disease; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get a disease. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Risk factors for myelodysplastic syndromes include the following:
The cause of myelodysplastic syndromes in most patients is not known.
Signs and symptoms of a myelodysplastic syndrome include shortness of breath and feeling tired.
Myelodysplastic syndromes often do not cause early signs or symptoms. They may be found during a routine blood test. Signs and symptoms may be caused by myelodysplastic syndromes or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
Tests that examine the blood and bone marrow are used to diagnose myelodysplastic syndromes.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
The following tests may be done on the sample of tissue that is removed:
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis and treatment options depend on the following:
There are different types of treatment for patients with myelodysplastic syndromes.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with myelodysplastic syndromes. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Treatment for myelodysplastic syndromes includes supportive care, drug therapy, and stem cell transplantation.
Patients with a myelodysplastic syndrome who have symptoms caused by low blood counts are given supportive care to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. Drug therapy may be used to slow progression of the disease. Certain patients can be cured with aggressive treatment with chemotherapy followed by stem cell transplant using stem cells from a donor.
Three types of standard treatment are used:
Supportive care is given to lessen the problems caused by the disease or its treatment. Supportive care may include the following:
Transfusion therapy (blood transfusion) is a method of giving red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets to replace blood cells destroyed by disease or treatment. A red blood cell transfusion is given when the red blood cell count is low and signs or symptoms of anemia, such as shortness of breath or feeling very tired, occur. A platelet transfusion is usually given when the patient is bleeding, is having a procedure that may cause bleeding, or when the platelet count is very low.
Patients who receive many blood cell transfusions may have tissue and organ damage caused by the buildup of extra iron. These patients may be treated with iron chelation therapy to remove the extra iron from the blood.
Erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs) may be given to increase the number of mature red blood cells made by the body and to lessen the effects of anemia. Sometimes granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) is given with ESAs to help the treatment work better.
Antibiotics may be given to fight infection.
Patients with myelodysplastic syndrome associated with an isolated del(5q) chromosome abnormality who need frequent red blood cell transfusions may be treated with lenalidomide. Lenalidomide is used to lessen the need for red blood cell transfusions.
Antithymocyte globulin (ATG) works to suppress or weaken the immune system. It is used to lessen the need for red blood cell transfusions.
Azacitidine and decitabine are used to treat myelodysplastic syndromes by killing cells that are dividing rapidly. They also help genes that are involved in cell growth to work the way they should. Treatment with azacitidine and decitabine may slow the progression of myelodysplastic syndromes to acute myeloid leukemia.
Patients with a myelodysplastic syndrome and a high number of blasts in their bone marrow have a high risk of acute leukemia. They may be treated with the same chemotherapy regimen used in patients with acute myeloid leukemia.
Chemotherapy with stem cell transplant
Chemotherapy is given to kill cancer cells. Healthy cells, including blood -forming cells, are also destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cell transplant is a treatment to replace the blood-forming cells. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the patient completes chemotherapy, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.
This treatment may not work as well in patients whose myelodysplastic syndrome was caused by past treatment for cancer. Stem cell transplant. (Step 1): Blood is taken from a vein in the arm of the donor. The patient or another person may be the donor. The blood flows through a machine that removes the stem cells. Then the blood is returned to the donor through a vein in the other arm. (Step 2): The patient receives chemotherapy to kill blood-forming cells. The patient may receive radiation therapy (not shown). (Step 3): The patient receives stem cells through a catheter placed into a blood vessel in the chest.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Treatment for myelodysplastic syndromes may cause side effects.
For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI's clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
The treatment of myelodysplastic syndromes may include the following:
Patients who were treated in the past with chemotherapy or radiation therapy may develop myeloid neoplasms related to that therapy. Treatment options are the same as for other myelodysplastic syndromes.
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
There is no standard treatment for refractory or relapsed myelodysplastic syndromes. Patients whose cancer does not respond to treatment or has come back after treatment may want to take part in a clinical trial.
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about myelodysplastic syndromes, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
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Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of myelodysplastic syndromes. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
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Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
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PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Myelodysplastic Syndromes Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/myeloproliferative/patient/myelodysplastic-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389239]
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Last Revised: 2020-09-10
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