The myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS, formerly known as “preleukemia”) are a diverse collection of hematological conditions united by ineffective production (or dysplasia) of myeloid blood cells and risk of transformation to acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). Anemia requiring chronic blood transfusion is frequently present. Astronomer Carl Sagan, writer Roald Dahl, jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker and actress Nina Foch died of this condition.
Myelodysplastic syndromes are bone marrow stem cell disorders resulting in disorderly and ineffective hematopoiesis (blood production) manifested by irreversible quantitative and qualitative defects in hematopoietic (blood-forming) cells. In a majority of cases, the course of disease is chronic with gradually worsening cytopenias due to progressive bone marrow failure. Approximately one-third of patients with MDS progress to AML within months to a few years.
Signs and symptoms
The median age at diagnosis of a MDS is between 60 and 75 years; a few patients are younger than 50; MDS diagnoses are rare in children. Males are slightly more commonly affected than females. Signs and symptoms are nonspecific and generally related to the blood cytopenias:
Anemia—chronic tiredness, shortness of breath, chilled sensation, sometimes chest pain
Neutropenia (low neutrophil count) —increased susceptibility to infection
Thrombocytopenia (low platelet count) —increased susceptibility to bleeding and ecchymosis (bruising), as well as subcutaneous hemorrhaging resulting in purpura or petechia
Many individuals are asymptomatic, and blood cytopenia or other problems are identified as a part of a routine blood count:
neutropenia, anemia and thrombocytopenia (low cell counts of white and red blood cells, and platelets, respectively);
splenomegaly or rarely hepatomegaly;
abnormal granules in cells, abnormal nuclear shape and size; and/or
chromosomal abnormalities, including chromosomal translocations and abnormal chromosome number.
Although there is some risk for developing acute myelogenous leukemia, about 50% of deaths occur as a result of bleeding or infection. Leukemia that occurs as a result of myelodysplasia is notoriously resistant to treatment.
MDS is caused by environmental exposures such as radiation and benzene; other risk factors have been reported inconsistently. Secondary MDS occurs as a late toxicity of cancer treatment, usually with a combination of radiation and the radiomimetic alkylating agents such as busulfan, nitrosourea, or procarbazine (with a latent period of 5 to 7 years) or the DNA topoisomerase inhibitors (2 years). Both acquired aplastic anemia following immunosuppressive treatment and Fanconi’s anemia can evolve into MDS.
MDS is thought to arise from mutations in the multi-potent bone marrow stem cell, but the specific defects responsible for these diseases remain poorly understood. Differentiation of blood precursor cells is impaired, and there is a significant increase in levels of apoptotic cell death in bone marrow cells. Clonal expansion of the abnormal cells results in the production of cells which have lost the ability to differentiate. If the overall percentage of bone marrow blasts rises over a particular cutoff (20% for WHO and 30% for FAB) then transformation to acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) is said to have occurred. The progression of MDS to AML is a good example of the multi-step theory of carcinogenesis in which a series of mutations occur in an initially normal cell and transform it into a cancer cell.
While recognition of leukemic transformation was historically important (see History), a significant proportion of the morbidity and mortality attributable to MDS results not from transformation to AML but rather from the cytopenias seen in all MDS patients. While anemia is the most common cytopenia in MDS patients, given the ready availability of blood transfusion MDS patients rarely suffer injury from severe anemia. However, if an MDS patient is fortunate enough to suffer nothing more than anemia over several years, they then risk iron overload. The two most serious complications in MDS patients resulting from their cytopenias are bleeding (due to lack of platelets) or infection (due to lack of white blood cells). Long-term, transfusion of packed red blood cells leads to iron overload.
The recognition of epigenetic changes in DNA structure in MDS has explained the success of two of three commercially available medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat MDS. Proper DNA methylation is critical in the regulation of proliferation genes, and the loss of DNA methylation control can lead to uncontrolled cell growth, and cytopenias. The recently approved DNA methyltransferase inhibitors take advantage of this mechanism by creating a more orderly DNA methylation profile in the hematopoietic stem cell nucleus, and thereby restore normal blood counts and retard the progression of MDS to acute leukemia.
Some authors have proposed that the loss of mitochondrial function over time leads to the accumulation of DNA mutations in hematopoietic stem cells, and this accounts for the increased incidence of MDS in older patients. Researchers point to the accumulation of mitochondrial iron deposits in the ringed sideroblast as evidence of mitochondrial dysfunction in MDS.