Just before he took a call from a reporter asking about the impact of drug shortages in hematology, Bill Greene, PharmD, chief pharmaceutical officer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, had spent an hour on the phone overseeing his institution’s response to a hematology drug shortage. The chemotherapy drug fludarabine, used to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia, was in short supply.
“There are 5 different manufacturers, but none of them have had drug available over the past 2 weeks,” Dr. Greene said. “We’re trying to chase some emergency supplies to be able to continue treatment for patients who’ve had their treatments initiated and planned.”
Over the past several years, this predicament has become common at hematology clinics across the country. In fact, management of scarce medication resources has become a significant part of Dr. Greene’s workload these days, as critical drugs fail to show up on time or manufacturer supplies run low at his hospital in Memphis.
This shortage of hematology drugs got a new dose of national attention, thanks to a recent episode of CBS News’ “60 Minutes.” Through interviews with physicians and parents of children who suddenly could not get vital medications, the report highlighted the recent shortage of another leukemia drug, vincristine.
“As a cancer mom, we shouldn’t be fighting for our children to get a drug that is needed,” Cyndi Valenta was quoted as saying. She recalled that when the shortage began in 2019, her 13-year-old son, a leukemia patient at Loma Linda (Calif.) University Hospital, felt frightened. Ms. Valenta said she felt a “gut-wrenching feeling of just fear and anger.” They were finally able to get doses of the drug after launching a social media campaign.
Such drug shortages are especially widespread in oncology and hematology, according to a survey of oncology pharmacists at 68 organizations nationwide.in the the study showed that 63% of institutions reported one or more drug shortages every month, with a 34% increase in 2019, compared with 2018. Treatment delays, reduced doses, or alternative regimens were reported by 75% of respondents, the authors wrote.
The pharmacists surveyed between May 2019 and July 2020 were asked about the three most hard-to-get chemotherapy and supportive care agents. Vincristine topped the list, followed by vinblastine, IVIG, leucovorin, and BCG, as well as difficult-to-obtain ropine, erwinia asparaginase, etoposide, and leuprolide. Several of these drugs are used to treat conditions such as lymphoma and leukemia.
Eighty-two percent of respondents reported shortages of decitabine (IV), often used as part of a cocktail with vinblastine and other drugs to treat Hodgkin lymphoma.
The reasons for drug shortages are varied. The CBS News report declared that “pharmaceutical companies have stopped producing many life-saving generic drugs because they make too little profit,” and it suggested that the federal government isn’t doing enough.
But government action actually might be making a difference. According to the FDA, the number of new drug shortages has fallen dramatically from 250 in 2011 to 41 in 2021, and the number of prevented drug shortages rose from nearly 200 to more than 300 over that same period. Still, the number of ongoing drug shortages has risen from around 40 in 2017 to about 80 in 2021.
Reasons for the paucity of certain drugs are often unclear. In a June 12, 2022 post, for example, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists’ drug shortage database noted that the chemotherapy drug fludarabine was in short supply and provided details about when some of the 5 manufacturers expected to have it available. (This is the shortage that Dr. Greene was trying to manage.) But 4 of the 5 manufacturers “did not provide a reason,” and the fifth blamed manufacturing delays.
“There’s a lot of closely held trade secrets that hinder the ability to share good information,” said Dr. Greene. To make things more complicated, shipping times are often unreliable. “The product doesn’t show up today, we place another order. Sometimes it will show up tomorrow, sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. “If you’re not tracking it carefully, you deplete your own supply.”
Patients’ families have grown used to dealing with drug shortages, and “they’re less quick to blame personnel at our institution.”
How can hematologists cope with this issue? “The best thing in the immediate term is to advocate for their hospital to have a pharmacist dedicated to shortage monitoring and taking proactive steps to obviate shortages,” hematologist/oncologist Andrew Hantel, MD, an instructor at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, Boston, said in an interview.
“We have ongoing communications with other large cancer centers and the FDA to recognize shortages early and develop plans to make sure we stay ahead of them,” Dr. Hantel said. “Most often this involves assessing supply, use rates, alternative manufacturers, and additional measures the Food and Drug Administration can take (for example, importation), and occasionally working with clinical teams to see if other medications are feasible alternatives.”
If a drug is unavailable, it can also be helpful to discuss alternative approaches. “We did not have any frank shortages of vincristine,” Dr. Hantel said, “but we did focus on conservation measures and considered different ethically appropriate ways to distribute vincristine if there was a point at which we did not have enough for everyone who needed it.”
If a drug is in short supply, options can include delaying treatment, giving an alternative, or providing the rest of the regimen without the scarce drug, he said. In a 2021 report in The Lancet Hematology, Dr. Hantel and his colleagues offered “model solutions for ethical allocation during cancer medicine shortages.”
The authors of the May 2022 drug-shortage report highlighted an alternative regimen in hematology. They noted that manufacturing delays have limited the supply of dacarbazine, used for Hodgkin lymphoma. Due to the current shortages, they wrote, clinicians are considering the use of escalated bleomycin, doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, vincristine, procarbazine, and prednisone, replacing dacarbazine with procarbazine and using the doxorubicin, bleomycin, vinblastine, procarbazine, and prednisone regimen, or replacing dacarbazine with cyclophosphamide.
Dr. Greene emphasized the importance of tracking the news and the drug shortage websites run by the FDA and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.
It’s also crucial to have a good relationship with your wholesaler, he added, and to communicate about these problems within your facility. At his hospital, the pharmaceutical staff holds a multi-disciplinary meeting at least weekly to discuss the supply of medications. As he put it, “it’s a challenging environment.”
Dr. Greene and Dr. Hantel reported no relevant disclosures.