Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS) Treatment

Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) are blood cancers that arise from immature blood cells in the bone marrow. There are various forms of MDS, and treatment decisions are based in part on the type of MDS and the age and general health of the individual. Each treatment option has its own benefits and potential side effects.1

Types of treatment for myelodysplastic syndromes

There are several different types of treatment that may be used for patients with MDS, including:

  • Supportive care
  • Drug therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Stem cell transplant1,2

Supportive care

In people with MDS, the cancerous cells multiply and can cause a change in the functioning of normal healthy red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. When the number of healthy blood cells are too low, it can cause symptoms like anemia (not enough red blood cells), neutropenia (not enough white blood cells), or thrombocytopenia (not enough platelets). Supportive care for people with MDS can treat the symptoms of low blood counts and is often used in combination with other treatments for MDS. Supportive care for MDS may include receiving certain growth factors to boost red blood, certain growth factors to boost platelets, certain growth factors to boost white blood cells, blood transfusions, and/or antibiotic therapy to treat infections. People who receive multiple blood transfusions over several years can be at risk of organ damage due to a buildup of extra iron, and they may be treated with iron chelation therapy to help remove the excess iron.2,3

Drug therapy

Different medications may be used to treat certain people with MDS. Some medications can reduce the need for transfusions of red blood cells. Immunosuppressive therapy with anti-thymocyte globulin (ATG) and cyclosporine helps suppress the immune system. In some people with MDS, the lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell that helps control immune reactions) can interfere with healthy blood cell production, and suppressing the immune system can help to increase the number of healthy blood cells.2,4


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to stop cancer cells. Chemotherapy medications may be used in combination, and they may be taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle. Chemotherapy works by targeting fast-growing cells, such as cancer cells. However, there are other fast-growing cells in the body that can also be affected, such as those in the gastrointestinal tract and hair.4

Stem cell transplants

Stem cell transplants are used in combination with high doses of chemotherapy and may be a treatment option for certain people with MDS. The high dose of chemotherapy destroys the cancer cells and also damages healthy blood cells. The transplant of stem cells, immature cells that can become new blood cells, is given to restore the bone marrow. In MDS, the stem cells are typically gathered from a donor (called an allogeneic transplant), and less commonly, stem cells may be gathered from the patient prior to chemotherapy (called an autologous transplant). Not everyone is a candidate for stem cell transplants, however, as the high doses of chemotherapy can be very taxing on a person’s body and may not be tolerated by older patients or those with other health problems.2

Clinical trials

Clinical trials are a type of research where new treatments are studied. Clinical trials are an important part of the scientific process to find and prove the safety and effectiveness of new treatments, and they offer patients a chance to receive the latest treatments and be closely monitored by healthcare professionals. Clinical trials can be found by talking to a healthcare provider or through the website Patients can discuss treatment options with their doctor to determine if they might be eligible to participate in a clinical trial.2,5

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Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: October 2020