America is Running out of A Critical Pediatric Cancer Drug

Supplies for a critical pediatric chemotherapy drug—known as vincristine—are running alarmingly low. And unfortunately, there is no replacement or alternative, which is leading doctors to warn that a medical nightmare is coming. 

According to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Chief Pharmaceutical Officer

Dr. William Greene, “In pediatric cancer treatment, vincristine is commonly used for patients with leukemia as well as those with solid tumors and brain tumors. In acute lymphoblasic leukemia, vincristine is a critical component of remission-induction therapy and maintenance therapy.”

Mt Sinai-Baltimore Herman and Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital pediatric oncologist Dr. Yoram Unguru explains, “Vincristine, a drug that has been used to treat and cure countless children with cancer for more than 5 decades, is an essential component in treatment regimens for children with nearly every form of cancer.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Greene advises that childhood cancer specialists now have to figure out how the complicated—and concerning—task of prioritizing what supplies are available among equally deserving children.  Dr. Green goes on to say that the industry is already working to find an alternative.  In the meantime, experts are working diligently to avoid having to resort to less well-established therapies as the only available alternatives.

What is most unsettling about this, however, might be that it is not surprising at all. Unguru has been warning the industry—and anyone who will listen, to be honest—for many years about pending drug shortages, especially those affecting childhood cancer and even vincristine in particular. Earlier this year he commented in an interview about this health care crisis, saying that the government needs to intervene. 

The Johns Hopkins University Berman Institute of Bioethics faculty member attests, “These medicines are truly part of our critical infrastructure and we need to treat them as such. Profitable drugs, including those that may extend lives by only a few months are not in short supply, but lifesaving drugs for which there is no alternative and which are reimbursed at dollars per dose are—where is the logic?”

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