PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Eight-month-old Elena Schoneveld has leukemia. An injectable drug called methotrexate is part of her treatment.
“The fact of the matter is it’s curable. There’s a lot of cancers that are not curable,” says her father, Mark Schoneveld.
But a crisis is looming.
“Methotrexate is the drug that is really in national crisis, and methotrexate is one of the main drugs we use to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common leukemia in children,” says Dr. A Kim Ritchey, a pediatric oncologist at Children’s Hospital Pittsburgh. “There are some hospitals that are probably going to run out in days.”
Hundreds of medicines are in short supply — 28 of them are cancer drugs that hundreds of thousands of people need – a relatively smaller number than the millions that take other drugs, which is one reason reserves are running low.
Also, drug makers have stopped making them because of low profitability of these now generic medicines.
“It’s probably more complicated than, that it’s just a low return drug,” Dr. Ritchey adds. “I know that there have been problems with supplies, with getting the ingredients to make the methotrexate. Quality control has been an issue. So I think there are multiple factors.”
So far, Children’s Hospital has enough methotrexate, with the pharmacy keeping close tabs on supply.
“So far we have been able to manage it,” says Dr. Ritchey.
For some other types of cancer drugs, doctors can make substitutions. But in this case, there are no alternatives.
“So it’s really kind of a national crisis and almost a national shame that we don’t have these drugs to give to these kids,” Dr. Ritchey says. “We’ll have to deny children life-saving treatment. That’s what we’re going to have to do.”
Congressional bills have been introduced to give the Food and Drug Administration more power to deal with the issue.
“It’s tough, but I have hope they’ll figure out a way,” says Mark Schoneveld.
The way, in the short term, is stepped up production from three companies that make the drug, and companies that stopped making it will be releasing their emergency supplies.
But how to handle the overall problem of these drug shortages for the long term is yet to be worked out.