Oncologists lament growing drug shortages

Low margins on generic cancer drugs are fueling ongoing shortages, doctors said as the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting wrapped up this week. Oncologists are forced to cast about for alternative therapies--or even to delay treatment when alternatives aren't available. And the scarce meds aren't little-used niche drugs, but common chemotherapies that often are the foundations for modern combination treatments.

"These are not old-fashioned drugs," Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Robert Mayer told Reuters. "They remain incredibly important drugs which serve as the backbone for treating many of the most common and treatable cancers."

The hard-to-obtain drugs include cisplatin, used to treat testicular, bladder, ovarian and lung cancers; doxorubicin, used against lymphoma, multiple myeloma, leukemia and other forms of the disease; cytarabine, a leukemia drug; and leucovorin for colorectal and head-and-neck cancers. They're made by a variety of companies, including Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Hospira.

Drug shortages have been a growing problem recently, as manufacturing problems, regulatory woes and competitive pressures have interfered with the supply of these and other drugs. Some drugmakers blame the FDA, maintaining the agency doesn't have the resources to quickly inspect plants after problems are fixed to allow drug production to resume. But economics are also important: Cheap drugs may be good for patients and payers, but low margins can give drugmakers little incentive--and little breathing room--to fix manufacturing or other problems when they arise. "We don't see an end in sight," ASCO President Michael Link said.

- read the Reuters news