Childhood Cancer Drug Shortage Creates ‘Nightmare Situation’ for Doctors and Children

By Zusmee Byamba

The scarcity of Vincristine, a cancer medication, is becoming increasingly problematic for doctors as there is no substitution.

“This is truly a nightmare situation,” Dr. Yoram Unguru, a pediatric oncologist at the Herman and Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai in Baltimore, told the New York Times.

Vincristine is a cancer medication that hinders the growth of cancer cells and slows their spread in the body. It is used in children’s chemotherapy treatments for diseases like leukemia (the most common childhood cancer), brain tumors, and lymphomas.

“Vincristine is our water. It’s our bread and butter. I can’t think of disease in childhood cancer that doesn’t use vincristine,” Unguru said.

According to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, about 19,000 adolescents and children in the United States develop cancer each year. Eighty-five percent of these children are cured, but treatment is largely dependent on older drugs like vincristine.

Vincristine is the backbone of treatment for most childhood cancers and there are no substitutions.

“You either have to skip a dose or give a lower dose—or beg, borrow or plead.” Unguru told the New York Times.

“We are all devastated,” Dr. Michael Link, a pediatric oncologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine and a former president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, told the New York Times.

Without vincristine, many children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia will still be cured, “but this is a difficult disease to treat in general, and with one hand tied behind your back, it makes it much more difficult,” Link said.

Until earlier this year, the only drug manufacturers supplying Vincristine were Pfizer and Teva Pharmaceuticals Industries. But according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Teva stopped manufacturing vincristine in July as a result of a “business decision”.

Pfizer, therefore, now the sole manufacturer of vincristine, is struggling to fill the demand.

“Pfizer has experienced a delay, and we are working closely with them and exploring all options to make sure this critical cancer drug is available for the patients who need it,” the FDA said in a brief statement to the New York Times.

Pfizer’s spokeswoman Jessica Smith said the company would rush additional shipments of the drug over the next few weeks to “support three to four times our typical production output,” in an effort to meet the demand.

Unguru said eight of the 10 drugs most commonly used to treat leukemia have been unavailable at times over the past decade.
“This shouldn’t be happening in the United States,” said Dr. Peter Adamson, chair of the Children’s Oncology Group.

“It’s hard enough for any family having a kid with cancer, and having a child with cancer likely to be cured except we can’t give them the drug is beyond the imagination,” Adamson told the paper.“How can we do that to families?”