While there are several known myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) causes, in most cases the condition develops without an identifiable trigger. These are called primary or de novo myelodysplastic syndromes and account for approximately 80 to 90 percent of diagnoses.
The remaining cases are classified as secondary myelodysplastic syndromes and are caused by DNA damage sustained during treatment for a previous cancer. Although it’s not entirely clear how treatment for an unrelated cancer causes a myelodysplastic syndrome to develop, researchers currently believe that:
- Radiation therapy or chemotherapy can damage the genes that are responsible for promoting normal cell growth or suppressing cancer.
- If a gene in one of a patient’s stem cells (the cells in the bone marrow that are responsible for producing red and white blood cells) becomes damaged, the cell can transform from a normal, healthy cell into a cancerous one.
- Because the newly cancerous cell has damage in a gene that controls its growth, the cell can produce more clones of itself than are actually necessary. These clones may not be able to properly produce healthy blood cells, which can ultimately develop into MDS.
In some cases, these genetic changes can also be caused by inherited genetic syndromes, such as Fanconi anemia, Shwachman-Diamond syndrome and familial platelet disorder. However, many people with these conditions are never diagnosed with a myelodysplastic syndrome.
At Moffitt Cancer Center, we have one of the largest myelodysplastic syndrome programs in the world, and we devote significant resources to investigating the potential causes of these conditions. Our Malignant Hematology Program has conducted numerous studies to learn more about malignant DNA and genetic abnormalities, with the goal of not only identifying myelodysplastic syndrome causes, but also learning how to help at-risk individuals take a proactive role in protecting their health.