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Why Is There A Dangerous Shortage of Effective Cancer Drugs?

Emanuel writes that cancer care for adults and children is being rationed because of the severe shortage of the most effective cancer drugs. "Of the 34 generic cancer drugs on the market, as of this month, 14 were in short supply," he notes. The piece continues:

They include drugs that are the mainstay of treatment regimens used to cure leukemia, lymphoma and testicular cancer. As Dr. Michael Link, the president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, recently told me, “If you are a pediatric oncologist, you know how to cure 70 to 80 percent of patients. But without these drugs you are out of business.”

This shortage is even inhibiting research studies that can lead to higher cure rates: enrollment of patients in many clinical trials has been delayed or stopped because the drugs that are in short supply make up the standard regimens to which new treatments are added or compared.

The sad fact is, there are plenty of newer brand-name cancer drugs that do not cure anyone, but just extend life for a few months, at costs of up to $90,000 per patient. Only the older but curative cancer drugs — drugs that can cost as little as $3 per dose — have become unavailable. Most of these drugs have no substitutes, but, crazy as it seems, in some cases these shortages are forcing doctors to use brand-name drugs at more than 100 times the cost.

But why is this? If demand is high, what's the problem? Emanuel explains:

Only about 10 percent of the shortages can be attributed to a lack of raw materials and essential ingredients to manufacture the drugs. Most shortages appear instead to be the consequence of corporate decisions to cease production, or interruptions in production caused by money or quality problems, which manufacturers do not appear to be in a rush to fix.

And the bottom line is this, he writes:

The low profit margins mean that manufacturers face a hard choice: lose money producing a lifesaving drug or switch limited production capacity to a more lucrative drug.

This program aired on August 8, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.

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