Conference Coverage

Cancer drug shortages spur worry, rationing, and tough choices


AT ASCO 2023

– Oncologist Denise Yardley, MD, isn’t used to expressing uncertainty when she tells patients about what’s in store for them in terms of drug treatment. But things are dramatically different now amid a severe national shortage of carboplatin and cisplatin, two common and crucial cancer drugs.

“There’s a regimen I’m thinking about,” Dr. Yardley told a new patient recently, “but we’ll have to wait until you finish your staging evaluation to see whether I can deliver this. Another regimen that’s a little more toxic is my second choice.” And, she added, the alternative chemotherapy treatment – anthracycline instead of carboplatin – requires a longer treatment period.

This ambiguity is hardly ideal, said Dr. Yardley, of Tennessee Oncology and Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville. “It’s another factor in being overwhelmed in a first-time visit and wanting to know the details about what your treatment is going to look like. You’re not walking out knowing exactly what you’re going to take or the exact timing so you can start mapping out your calendar and work schedule.”

This kind of scenario is becoming all too familiar this spring, according to oncologists who gathered at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). In interviews, these physicians said the limited supply of multiple cancer drugs – including the chemotherapies carboplatin and cisplatin – is having an unprecedented negative effect since their use is so widespread in cancer care.

“Every patient could get impacted. That’s why we need to address this sooner rather than later,” said oncologist Aditya Baria, MBBS, MPH, director of the Breast Cancer Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

Shortages of cancer drugs are not unusual. Three-quarters of oncology pharmacists at 68 organizations surveyed from 2019 to 2020 said shortages prompted treatment delays, reduced doses, or alternative regimens. But the current shortages are having a much wider impact.

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network recently reported that 93% of 27 member institutions surveyed in late May are short on carboplatin, and 70% have reported a shortage of cisplatin. Plus, 20% of 19 centers said they weren’t able to continue carboplatin regimens for all patients.

The drugs are mainstays of multiple types of treatment for a long list of cancer types including lung, breast, gynecologic, and many others.

Several scenarios are possible when the drugs are in short supply, said Dr. Yardley, who noted that the shortage is more severe than any she’s seen in her medical career of more than 3 decades. Patients may need to be switched to regimens with more side effects, even when they’re in the middle of a treatment, she said. Or patients might have to go longer between treatments.

In some cases, Dr. Yardley said, the shortage is forcing patients to go without an important component of a larger combination therapy regimen. “The Keynote 522 neoadjuvant regimen for triple-negative breast cancer has carboplatin given with Taxol [paclitaxel] and Keytruda [pembrolizumab]. We are just deleting the carboplatin.”

She added that carboplatin is part of the following so-called TCHP regimen for HER2+ early-stage breast cancer: Taxotere (docetaxel), carboplatin, Herceptin (trastuzumab), and Perjeta (pertuzumab).

“You can delete [carboplatin] or consider substituting cyclophosphamide for carboplatin,” she said. But she cautioned the Keynote 522 and TCHP regimens haven’t been tested without carboplatin in curative-intent trials.

At Duke University in Durham, N.C., doses of carboplatin for many patients are being lowered by a third to the level that’s commonly used for older and frail patients, said oncologist Arif Kamal, MD, MBA, MHS, who works at the academic center and is the chief patient officer at the American Cancer Society.

“We don’t know if [the lower doses will negatively affect cancer patients’ outcomes]. What’s amazing is how many patients [are understanding about having to take smaller amounts of the chemotherapy],” he said.

Medical organizations are offering guidance. The Society of Gynecologic Oncology, for example, in late April recommended that oncologists increase intervals between chemotherapy treatments when appropriate, round down vial sizes to ensure “efficient use,” and eliminate or minimize use of cisplatin and carboplatin in certain platinum-resistant cancers.

In early June, ASCO published guidance regarding alternatives to cisplatin, carboplatin, and 5-fluorouracil, which is also in short supply, in gastrointestinal cancer. As the guidance notes, some alternatives are more untested or more toxic than ideal treatments.

In addition, ASCO has a webpage devoted to news and resources about shortages of cancer drugs. It offers drug availability updates, general guidance, and breast cancer guidance. ASCO also offers ethical guidance about handling drug shortages.

Patients in clinical trials and those who hope to join them are especially vulnerable to the drug shortage, oncologists interviewed for this story said. Cisplatin and carboplatin are the backbones of many clinical trials, Dr. Yardley said. “When you can’t supply a drug in one of the [trial] arms, that puts the whole trial on pause.”

Even clinics that have managed to find adequate supplies of the drugs are planning for when they run out.

“Our institution and other institutions are trying to come up with a rationing protocol, deciding which patients are going to get access, and which ones have reasonable alternatives,” radiation oncologist Corey Speers MD, PhD, of University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center and Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, said in an interview. “In some settings, there really isn’t an effective alternative. Or the alternatives are tens of thousands of dollars more expensive.”

Oncologists also noted that cisplatin and carboplatin aren’t the only cancer drugs in short supply.

“Methotrexate is critically low, and 5FU [fluorouracil] is critically low,” Dr. Yardley said, referring to drugs that each treat several types of cancer. According to the May NCNN survey, 67% of respondents reported low supplies of methotrexate, and 26% said they were low on 5FU.

“Viscous lidocaine is a component of many supportive care mouth rinses for the stomatitis caused by our drugs but is not available at all,” Dr. Yardley said.

She added that there are also low supplies of fludarabine, which is used to treat chronic lymphocytic lymphom; clofarabine, which is used to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia; and rasburicase, which is used to treat high levels of uric acid in patients on chemotherapy.

Dr. Speers said his institution is facing a shortage of capecitabine, which is used to treat several types of cancer.

“Numerous trials have demonstrated the improved, safety, efficacy, and convenience of oral capecitabine. With the shortage we’re having to use infusional 5FU, which not only is less convenient but also ends up being more costly and requires infusion room space or continuous infusion pumps. This impacts our ability to treat cancer patients,” he said. “Our capacity is becoming more limited to accommodate these added patients, and we have to use infusional formulations of a drug that previously was readily available via an oral formulation. Patients and caregivers now have to come to the cancer center for appointments and infusions that previously weren’t needed as they could take an oral pill.”

Dr. Speers added that his institution is rationing methotrexate. “We are now prioritizing patients being treated with curative intent and adjusting protocols to use the lowest allowable doses to conserve supply,” he said.

The roots of the platinum chemotherapy drug shortage link back to the India-based Intas Pharmaceuticals company, a major manufacturer of cisplatin and carboplatin. According to Kellyann Zuzulo, spokeperson for Accord Healthcare, an Instas U.S. subsidiary, a facility inspection in December 2022 prompted a decision to temporarily stop making the drugs. The inspection identified multiple problems.

“Intas and Accord are working with the FDA on a plan to return to manufacturing,” Ms. Zuzulo said in an interview. “This will allow for continued production of products that will be prioritized based on medical necessity. A date has not yet been confirmed in which the facility will return to manufacturing for cisplatin, carboplatin or any other products.”

Ms. Zuzulo said the company is not a health care provider and cannot offer advice to patients about alternatives.

Other companies that make cisplatin and carboplatin have also reported shortages. In interviews, representatives for Fresenius Kabi and Pfizer said the companies have limited supplies because of increased demand – not because of manufacturing problems.

On June 12, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) reported that carboplatin remains in short supply, with all five companies that sell the drug listed as having limited or back-ordered supplies. Cisplatin is also in short supply, the organization reported in a June 9 update, although some is available.

In a June 12 update on methotrexate, ASHP said manufacturing delays at Accord have caused a shortage, and other companies are running low due to increased demand.

As for the future, Congress and the Biden administration, according to a report by Bloomberg, are trying to figure out what to do regarding shortages of cheap generic drugs such as cisplatin and carboplatin. The FDA is exploring a partnership with a Chinese drugmaker to make cisplatin, NBC News reported.

However, fixes will be challenging, according to former FDA commissioner and Pfizer board member, Scott Gottlieb, MD.

“This generic business, particularly for these complex drugs, these complex formulations, is not a healthy business right now. Yet it’s a vital business from a public standpoint,” he told CBS News.

In an interview, Dr. Kamal said that there is even talk about boosting the prices of cheap generic drugs “to ensure that there’s enough incentive for multiple manufacturers to be involved.”

Dr. Kamal said he is crossing his fingers that cutting chemotherapy doses at his clinic doesn’t result in worse outcomes for his patients.

“Right now, I think dropping someone by 25% or 30% is okay. And for some patients, particularly in a curative setting, we try to keep them at as much as 100% as possible. But there’s just a lot of unknowns,” he said.

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