Cancer Drug Shortage Affects Central Ohioans

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A technician prepares IV fluid(Photo: UM Health System (Flickr))
A technician prepares IV fluid(Photo: UM Health System (Flickr))

Doctors around the country report a severe shortage of 200 pharmaceutical drugs. The drugs in question include antibiotics, anesthetics and cancer fighting drugs. Central Ohio doctors report shortages here. Oncologists say the shortage is having a detrimental effect on their cancer patients.

Dr. Richard Goldberg is an oncologist at The James Comprehensive Cancer Center at Ohio State University. He says over the past several months drug shortages have become more and more acute.

This has become a dramatic issue and particularly for patients who are potentially curable. But even for patients where the goal is to try and improve the quality and length of life obviously not being able to get the medicines that are established to help them is terrifying for them and frustrating for us.

Reporter: Are patients at risk of passing away because they can’t get certain drugs?

Dr. Richard Goldberg: Well, most of the time we find a way to get them drugs. But sometimes the treatments are not as intense as they need to be to give the best possible outcome. So the answer to that is yes. And the problem with this is that the drugs that are not available are not the new drugs that are on-patent and are often very expensive.

It’s the drugs that Dr. Goldberg has been using for years and are now generic; cheaper for the patient, less profitable for the drug companies. Those companies are not manufacturing as much. Once there were dozens of generic manufacturers, now there are only seven or fewer.

Columbus oncologist Elaine Beed says that when a drug goes generic, the drug company that researched, developed, marketed and manufactured it usually halts production.

“If there’s profit, they’re going to have the drugs available,” Dr. Beed says. “If there’s no profit people will stop making them.”

Beed says she tries to order sufficient quantities of cancer drugs when they’re available. But sometimes, she says, she’s forced to limit doses. And sometimes treatment is delayed.

“I’d say we’ve had a few problems with a few patients that there was really no substitute and their tumors did grow and finally we were able to get the drug but it was not the way I like to practice medicine.

Beed says such circumstances only increase a patient’s anxiety.

They come to get their drug and you say, ‘Sorry, your drug’s not available.’ ‘Well, it’s working; where can I get it?’ ‘Well it’s not available.’ Then you treat with sub-optimal regimens so you try to substitute something just because you don’t want to give the patient nothing; especially when you know that drug is working. And then there’s possible recurrence or progression of disease when you have to hold treatment and you have to watch the tumor grow.

Glenn Balasky is executive director of the Zangmeister Cancer Center in Columbus. Balasky, though not a physician, is only too familiar with the drug shortage problem, because he says, it affects about 35 percent of the center’s patients.

“A long established generic drug for colon cancer called 5FU; Taxol, which is used in breast cancer care has been off and on in short supply; another significant drug used in ovarian cancer, Doxil, has been in short supply over the last four to five months,” Balasky says. “And then there’s a handful of other generic drugs that are either right now or about to be in short supply that are part of our arsenal to treat cancer patients.”

Balasky points again to Doxil:

“The drug Doxil for ovarian cancer I think we’ve had to take a slight step back in using some generic agents that aren’t as clinically effective so in essence we are endangering lives there,” Balasky says.

President Obama recently addressed the problem by issuing an executive order. He wants drug makers to notify the FDA when they become aware of a looming shortage of a particular drug. He also wants the FDA to speed up manufacturers’ applications for drugs that could become scarce. Doctor Richard Goldberg of The James says he’s delighted to see that Mr. Obama is focusing on the problem. He says it’s an issue we have to deal with…

“This is an issue really for all of us,” says Goldberg. “Everyone of us knows someone with cancer or has cancer ourselves. One in two men and one in three women will develop it during their lifetimes and access to these drugs is critical. The last thing we want to do is compound the misery of having a diagnosis of cancer with having the difficulty of finding the medications you need to treat it.”

Goldberg says he thinks government intervention is a necessary element in solving the shortage problem.

  • Maryk

    Every practice, every hospital in America should serve up a similar commentary because I assure you, there is no one who has not been affected by the drug shortage issue in America.