Sera of 25 healthy controls and 75 patients suffering from myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) were investigated for serum concentration of interleukin-1alpha (IL-1alpha), IL-3, IL-6, granulocyte-colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF), granulocyte-macrophage-CSF (GM-CSF), erythropoietin (Epo), and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha). According to French-American-British (FAB) classification, 21 refractory anemia (RA), seven refractory anemia with ring sideroblasts (RARS), 15 chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML), 12 refractory anemia with excess of blasts (RAEB), and 20 RAEB in transformation (RAEBt) were examined. TNF-alpha levels were inversely correlated with lower levels of hemoglobin concentration (r = -0.31, p = 0.005), irrespective of the requirements for transfusion in anemic MDS patients. Significant differences in TNF-alpha levels between CMML (26.2 +/- 5.9 pg/ml) and the FAB subgroups (16.1 +/- 1.6 pg/ml) were detected. There was an overall inverse relationship between the level of erythropoietin and the degree of anemia, but a wide range of Epo response between patients with similar hemoglobin concentrations. Serum levels of IL-1alpha and GM-CSF were undetected in most of the patients. In 57% of the samples there were detectable levels of G-CSF, without a correlation of the serum levels with blood cell counts, nor with any of the FAB subcategories. Overall, 29% and 25% of the patient sera exhibited elevated IL-3 and IL-6 levels, respectively. There was no correlation of the serum levels with any of the blood counts, other cytokines, nor FAB subcategories. In conclusion, simple negative feedback mechanism between a specific cytokine and the production of blood cells seems not to be the case in MDS, except for red cell production and erythropoietin concentration. Our data may suggest the involvement of TNF-alpha in the pathogenesis of anemia in MDS.