Understanding Myelodysplastic syndrome
What is MDS?
Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) is a blood cancer in which the bone marrow produces ineffective red cells which carry oxygen, white blood cells which fight infection and/or platelets which help in clotting.
How common is it?
About 20,000 people are newly diagnosed with MDS each year in the United States. While the risk of MDS increases with age, it is also diagnosed in children, including infants. MDS is more common in males than females. About 30 percent of all patients with MDS will eventually develop a type of leukemia that is especially hard to treat. Coincidently, Minnesota has some of the highest incidence rates of MDS in the United States. Ongoing research attempts to understand why that might be.
What causes MDS?
Treatment for a prior cancer increases risk, but little else is known about why people develop MDS. Current studies are underway (see next page) to find out more about the causes of MDS.
Can MDS be cured?
The only known cure for MDS is a stem cell transplant. Nearly all children who develop MDS receive transplants. However, a transplant presents new challenges, increasing the risk of infection and rejection, as well as the possibility of MDS relapse and death. Furthermore, a transplant is often not possible for older people with MDS due to the intense treatments required. For those patients, doctors try to manage the MDS with blood transfusions or medications to increase the number of effective blood cells. Some patients can live a long time with MDS, but, unfortunately, many die within three years of diagnosis.
What is being done on MDS at the University of Minnesota?
Our team of doctors and researchers (pictured) are using a multi-faceted translational approach — an intense focus on translating new knowledge from the laboratory to patients and beyond to help improve treatments and outcomes for MDS patients.
3 exciting studies underway
1 Largest population-based study of MDS in the United States
Funded by a National Cancer Institute award of $2.5 million, doctors at the U of M and Mayo Clinic, are conducting the largest population-based study of MDS in the United States. Over a five-year period, they will recruit about 700 Minnesotans with MDS and 700 Minnesotans without MDS to understand why MDS develops and why some cases progress to leukemia. The goal is to identify earlier, those patients who are most at risk of progressing to leukemia, in hopes of intervening with lifesaving treatments.
2 New series of pilot studies
To enhance the aims of the above population-based study, doctors at the U of M and Mayo Clinic, were awarded a $1.35 million grant from the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechology and Medical Genomics to link promising avenues of research at both institutions and to develop additional pilot studies in MDS. Such pilot studies include:
- Identifying genes potentially important in both MDS development and progression to leukemia. Such genes may enable researchers to predict which patients are most at risk of developing leukemia. Such genes also may be new targets for therapies.
- Testing new drugs containing MDS antibodies for their effectiveness in reducing the number of MDS cells. If such drugs show promise, they could lead to new and better therapies for patients.
- Developing a new clinical trial to test the feasibility of strengthening a patient’s immune system by transfusing ‘natural killer cells’ from healthy people to reduce the number of MDS cells.
3 Studies of families with multiple members affected by MDS
To develop better treatment strategies for both pediatric and adult patients with MDS, doctors are using existing studies and physician referrals to identify families where more than one family member is affected with MDS or leukemia. Since people who are biologically related share more of the same genes, genetic studies of families can sometimes help more easily identify genes responsible for certain diseases.
Working together, our team aims to become a national leader in MDS research, with the ultimate goal of improving the lives of patients diagnosed with this very difficult-to-treat cancer.