HEALTH

Doctors urge more production of scarce cancer drug

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(ABC7, AP) - Four pharmaceutical companies that make a crucial cancer drug for children that's suddenly in short supply are being urged to try to quickly step up production to prevent unnecessary deaths.

A senator and three doctor groups this week sent the pleas to the companies, saying that hospitals will run out of the drug in days to weeks, increasing chances that young patients who might otherwise survive will die.

The critical shortage of methotrexate has doctors and hospitals around the country panicking because it's the key treatment for a common childhood cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL.

With the drug, doctors say they can cure nearly 90 percent of the roughly 3,500 American children and teens diagnosed with this cancer each year.

“Taking that away, survival will drop by 10, 15, 20 percent,” says Dr. Max Coppes of Children's National Medical Center, Center for Cancer.

He says at Children's, there is an adequate supply. It's used to treat about 300 children a year at Children's in D.C. But he agrees with medical experts who warn, across the United States, that some children will end up dying if they can't get the methotrexate.

Last year, there were a record 267 new drug shortages reported, and most remain unresolved.

The inability to get crucial medicines has disrupted chemotherapy, surgery and care for patients with infections and pain. At least 15 deaths since 2010 have been blamed on the shortages.

Specialty groups representing researchers and doctors who care for children with cancer say the methotrexate shortage began in December when production declined.

That drop resulted primarily from Ben Venue Laboratories Inc. temporarily closing its factory in Bedford, Ohio, in November after federal inspectors said the company had not been properly maintaining equipment or promptly addressing defective product batches and sterility problems.

Besides making methotrexate, the factory was the sole source for Johnson & Johnson's Doxil, a drug widely used for breast and ovarian cancer that's not been available for new patients for months.

Each of the remaining four manufacturers of methotrexate has had some type of production problem, and it's been unclear when the next batches of the drug will be sent to wholesalers and hospitals, according to Erin R. Fox, manager of the University of Utah Drug Information Service, which tracks national drug shortages.

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