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Myelodysplasia, or myelodysplastic syndrome, is a term used for a variety of diseases that are characterized by the ineffective production (or dysplasia) of a specific type of blood cells. It is sometimes a warning that cancer may be developing in the body. This condition is often referred to as being a pre-leukemia condition, since it carries a high risk of transforming into acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). It's important to remember, however, that myelodysplasia is a unique syndrome many people die of this condition without ever developing leukemia. In fact, only about one-third of all patients with myelodysplastic syndromes progress to AML within a few years.

Myelodysplastic syndromes all involve so-called adult stem cells that are found in the bone marrow. Normally, these cells are in charge of keeping blood cell counts high. The human body needs a certain amount of red blood cells to ensure that all organs are getting enough oxygen, and it needs a certain amount of white blood cells to ensure that infections can be combated effectively. In myelodysplasia, these stem cells are dysfunctional, and don't produce enough enough of either. As the disease progresses, the bone marrow lowers in function even further. The result is progressively lower blood-cell counts and progressively worse anemia.

Leukemia refers to a cancer of the white blood cells. White blood cells in the human body come in many different shapes and sizes, but overall, they serve the same overarching function within the body: they are designed to be able to fight off invasions by foreign intrusions, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and debris. If myelodysplasia progresses to leukemia, the anemia that was present can persist, and a host of other problems arise. Leukemia results in an overgrowth of dysfunctional white blood cells, so the body's ability to fight infections drops. Additionally, the high number of white blood cells can interfere with other parts of the body essentially clogging the spleen, liver, and lymph nodes resulting in pain in the abdomen and joints.

The causes of myelodysplasia tend to be similar to that of leukemia. Exposure to carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) such as radiation or benzene is known to mutate DNA and cause adult stem cells to stop functioning. Also, secondary myelodysplasia can occur after cancer treatments if radiation therapy had been used in conjunction with certain drugs, the bone marrow of a patient can be damaged and result in

Since myelodysplasia has a wide variety of symptoms, it needs to be differentiated from other forms of anemia and other diseases that result in low blood cell counts. Usually, inexplicably low cell counts, along with degenerating bone marrow is required to diagnose a disease as a myelodysplastic syndrome. This involves full blood counts, chromosomal studies on bone marrow cells, and ruling out conditions like lupus, hepatitis, HIV and vitamin deficiencies

The exact number of people living with myelodysplasia is unknown, since it can easily go undiagnosed or be improperly diagnosed. Some estimates of the number of new cases per year in the United States are as high as 20,000. The incidence of the disease in people over 70 may be as high as 15 cases per year for every 100,000 people.

Treatment of myelodysplasia usually focuses on increasing blood counts and controlling symptoms while preventing the disease's progression into leukemia. Blood transfusions and blood-cell growth factors are commonly given to people with the disease. Stem cell transplantation is often used in severely affected patients to replace the malfunctioning adult stem cells in the bone marrow. Chemotherapy is sometimes used to retard the transition to leukemia.