The clonal growth of progenitor cells from myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) can be subdivided into four growth patterns: (1) normal, (2) no growth or low plating efficiency, (3) low colony and high cluster number, and (4) normal or high colony number with a large number of clusters. The former two (1 and 2) can be referred to as nonleukemic patterns and latter two (3 and 4) as leukemic. In a search for a role for cytokines in leukemic-type growth of MDS progenitor cells, marrow CD34+ cells were purified up to 94% for 8 normal individuals and 88% for 12 MDS patients, using monoclonal antibodies and immunomagnetic microspheres (MDS CD34+ cells). The purified CD34+ cells were cultured for 14 days with various combinations of cytokines, including recombinant human macrophage colony-stimulating factor (rM-CSF), granulocyte-CSF (rG-CSF), granulocyte-macrophage-CSF (rGM-CSF), interleukin-3 (rIL-3), and stem cell factor (SCF; a ligand for c-kit) in serum-free medium. The clonal growth of MDS CD34+ cells supported by a combination of all of the above cytokines was subdivided into the two patterns of leukemic or nonleukemic, and then the role of individual or combined cytokines in proliferation and differentiation of MDS CD34+ cells was analyzed in each group. Evidence we obtained showed that SCF plays a central role in the leukemic-type growth of MDS CD34+ cells and that G-CSF, GM-CSF; and/or IL-3 synergize with SCF to increase undifferentiated blast cell colonies and clusters over that seen in normal CD34+ cells. SCF is present in either normal or MDS plasma at a level of nanograms per milliliter, and this physiologic concentration of SCF can stimulate progenitor cells. This means that progenitor cells are continuously exposed to stimulation by SCF in vivo and that MDS leukemic cells have a growth advantage over normal blast cells. This depends, at least in part, on cytokines such as G-CSF, GM-CSF, IL-3, and SCF.