High cost and demand for old cancer drug sparks crisis


As a severe shortage drags on and prices soar, transplant centers have been struggling to cope with the paucity and price of fludarabine, a chemotherapy drug that has become an essential component of stem-cell transplants for some blood cancers.

At Oregon Health and Science University, for example, an extensive algorithm now offers guidance through a thicket of alternative options, from adjusting doses and using substitutes to delaying treatment. Meanwhile, some institutions have enlisted ethicists and attorneys to guide their decisions on which patients will have to wait for potentially life-saving treatment.

Even as surgeons turn to alternatives, advocates for transplantation in hematology have warned about the potential for harm.

“This continued fludarabine shortage is forcing centers to use non–[Food and Drug Administration] approved lymphodepleting regimens that may negatively impact the success of a possibly lifesaving CAR-T therapy,” Brenda Sandmaier, MD, president of the Transplantation and Cellular Therapy American Society, and Jeffery Auletta, MD, a senior vice president with the National Marrow Donor, said in a June 30 letter to the FDA. The physicians added that they “request the FDA to take immediate action on this critical shortage. Many centers currently have no ability to purchase fludarabine through their suppliers and have no estimated time frame for return of availability. Other centers are limited to mere weeks of supply, with continued uncertainty of future availability.”

In October, less than 4 months after that letter was sent, one of the manufacturers of fludarabine – Areva Pharmaceuticals – marked up the price of fludarabine to $2,736 per vial, 10-20 times that of two other makers of the drug.

In new treatment era, fludarabine remains crucial

In 2015, ASH Clinical News – a publication of the American Society of Hematology – invited a pair of hematologists to discuss whether fludarabine is “dead” as a front-line treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). “Fludarabine is not dead yet, but the data from those and other long-term trials may be the final nail in its coffin,” said Mitchell Smith, MD, PhD, who was then with Cleveland Clinic and now works for George Washington University.

Seven years later, the role of fludarabine as a long-term chemotherapeutic agent in blood cancer has definitely evolved. Just as oncologists predicted back in 2015, “the use of fludarabine declined for the primary management of CLL and other B cell malignancies, due to the development of targeted therapies such as BTK inhibitors, venetoclax, and other agents,” Memorial Sloan Kettering hematologic oncologist Anthony Mato, MD, said in an interview.

But the drug “remains a critical agent for conditioning the immune system for cellular therapies such as allogeneic stem cell transplantation and CAR-T cells,” Dr. Mato said.

Nirav Shah, MD, a hematologic oncologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin, explained in an interview that “conditioning” in the stem-cell transplant context refers to “wiping out” the immune system, allowing the donor’s stem cells to avoid rejection. “It’s a commonly used drug,” he said, “and shortage was not really a concern that people faced until this year.”


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