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Good riddance to the term "refractory anemia" in myelodysplastic syndromes

Journal Title: 
Leuk Res
Primary Author: 
Steensma DP
Steensma DP
Original Publication Date: 
Monday, October 17, 2016

The term "refractory anemia" was used in 1937 by Cornelius Parker Rhoads to describe patients whose anemia did not improve after treatment with liver extract or iron salts, and this term has been used to denote patients with certain subtypes of myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) since the 1976 and 1982 French-American-British (FAB) classifications of acute leukemias and MDS. In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) proposed elimination of "refractory anemia" in a more general proposal for reclassification of myeloid neoplasia. A scandal relating to Dr. Rhoads' possibly unethical medical experiments on anemic patients in Puerto Rico in 1931 and a racially offensive letter he wrote during that period prompted an international incident and Congressional-level inquiry. This dark history, as well as continued terminological problems with refractory anemia, suggest that this hoary term has indeed worn out its usefulness. This article reviews the history of "refractory anemia" and evolution in its use over the past 80 years. Rhoads' personal history, the potentially confusing nature of "refractory anemia", and the fact that it is possible none of the 100 patients Rhoads described in 1937 actually had MDS all support the new WHO reclassification proposal to eliminate this term.

Bone Marrow Disease(s): 
  • myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS)
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