Shortage of Leukemia Drug Forcing Hospitals to Turn Some Patients Away

Critical shortage of drug could mean death for some.

ByABC News
April 14, 2011, 12:01 PM

April 14, 2011— -- A critical shortage of a leukemia drug has cancer centers across the country worried about how to treat many of their patients.

So far, oncologists in 30 states have reported a shortage of cytarabine, a drug that is key to treating certain types of leukemia. The situation, doctors say, is dire.

"If we can't get the drug, then the patients are going to die," said Dr. Hagop Kantarjian, chairman of the Department of Leukemia at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

See a list of hospitals affected by the cytarabine shortage.

The shortage began last fall, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says "manufacturing delays" caused production to lag.

One of the drug's three U.S. manufacturers, Hospira, said in a statement that its delays were caused when the company was unable to obtain the active ingredient, cytarabine, from its supplier. Hospira and another manufacturer, APP, also had a problem with crystallization in drug vials. APP ended up recalling a supply in February.

Bedford Laboratories, the third manufacturer, said in a statement its delays are "due in part to the fact that Bedford continues to face increased market share of product demand due to a decrease in competitor's capacity."

Cytarabine is used as part of a drug regimen against acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a relatively rare cancer. It's sometimes used to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia -- ALL for short.

For patients with AML who take cytarabine, the drug is the difference between a shot at life and certain death.

"Since its introduction, we can claim cures in 40 to 50 percent of patients," said Kantarjian. "Without the drug in the treatment regimen, the rate is zero."

Doctors say there are no suitable substitutes for cytarabine, leaving AML patients without a viable alternative. There are other drugs available for treatment of ALL.

Kantarjian was so concerned about the shortage that he emailed thousands of oncologists from all over the country, asking them how they've dealt with the diminished supply of cytarabine.

M.D. Anderson, Kantarjian said, is fortunate because it's a large hospital and was able to purchase a long-term supply of the drug, so there is an adequate supply there right now.

Some Hospitals Turning Patients Away

When ABC News asked cancer centers around the country how the shortage has affected patient care, the responses flooded in.

A number of hospitals said they have to ration supply, meaning some patients won't get the doses they need. It also means they have to turn new patients away.

Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha said, "At one point last week we were completely out of enough cytarabine for any new patients. We had enough to finish the current patients we had in the hospital but no new ones."

Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore said it only had a two-week supply. "We are really worried if we get a new patient with AML -- that will be very hard to keep up with."

Some hospitals said the shortage forces them to reserve whatever cytarabine they have for their current patients.

Dr. Jeff Hord, a hematologist-oncologist at Akron Children's Hospital in Akron, Ohio, said it is treating three or four patients for AML, and its supply of cytarabine is set aside for them.

One of those young patients, two-year-old Payton Maglich, has already had five treatments and has one more to go. Hord said there is enough for that final treatment, but her mother, Shari, still worries.