A month ago, Joy Dancer’s oncologist gave her some bad news.
The Westerville resident, 73, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March, and since April, she had been treated with infusions of two chemotherapy drugs.
Now, she was told that she could not get one of those, abraxane, because of a shortage blamed on a manufacturing delay.
“I was just shocked by that,” Dancer said. “I mean, I had heard on the news about how there were going to be shortages, so you should order your Christmas toys by Nov. 1 and things like that.
“But these aren’t toys. This is my life we’re talking about.”
Dozens of Ohio State cancer patients affected by abraxane shortage
Dancer is not the only Greater Columbus resident dealing with these supply issues. According to Julie Kennerly-Shah, associate director of pharmacy at Ohio State University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, 74 patients there (including Dancer) have been receiving abraxane, and most of them have now been shifted to alternative therapies.
Like Dancer, she is frustrated.
“The real root of the problem is that drug manufacturers are not held accountable by any governing body to both report potential shortages or give reasons for these shortages,” Kennerly-Shah said.
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A spokesperson for Bristol-Myers Squibb, the New York City-based manufacturer of abraxane, in a statement confirmed the issue is “manufacturing delays” and added, “BMS continues progress on returning its facility to operations. We intend to provide an update in mid-November regarding the duration of the supply constraints.
“Our commitment to patients is our priority, and we recognize the importance of abraxane for patients. We are making every effort to resolve the situation as early as possible.”
Spokespeople at other Greater Columbus hospital systems say they are not seeing any critical shortages.
Why are critical drugs in short supply?
This has been an ongoing national problem. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) keeps a database of drugs currently in short supply. As of late Thursday afternoon, it listed 112 such drugs.
John Palmer, director of media and public relations for the Ohio Hospital Association, said the issue has not risen to the level where hospitals are asking the OHA to intervene with the FDA on their behalf.
But he said that part of the problem is that many drugs are manufactured overseas, particularly cancer drugs, which leaves them more vulnerable to shipping and supply-chain issues that have been a global problem since the start of the pandemic.
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Bristol-Myers Squibb did not immediately reply to a question about where abraxane is manufactured. The company has facilities both inside and outside the United States.
"I would label that as a health care crisis when medications aren't available," Palmer said.
Kennerly-Shah said at Ohio State, a team holds weekly meetings to assess current shortages and possibly modify care for patients.
And she said shortages have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Patients have been very understanding based on the current climate in the world and the shortages we’re experiencing in other areas,” Kennerly-Shah said, “but that still doesn’t make it acceptable, in my opinion.”
What is abraxane and what types of cancer does it treat?
Abraxane is primarily used in treatment of pancreatic, gastro-intestinal and breast cancer, Kennerly-Shah said.
Dancer has been through this fight before, having conquered breast cancer that was diagnosed in 1999. But pancreatic cancer, she knows, is a tough challenge.
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She said her oncologist decided to simply go without the abraxane for now and treat her with the other cancer-fighting drug.
“It’s scary to have to change (her regimen),” Dancer said. “I want to be as aggressive as possible. Every little thing that doesn’t go the way it should is upsetting.”
Kennerly-Shah is sympathetic.
“No one wants to share the news with a patient that a drug exists that is potentially life-saving but we’re in a position where we may not have enough for everyone,” she said. “I hope we find way to do better, for the sake of all patients who rely on medications.
“Their lives are in the hands of drug manufacturers.”
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Abraxane cancer drug shortage forces patients in Columbus to adjust