RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.
We have the latest development, this morning, in a problem that's been appearing more and more often: Shortage of lifesaving drugs.
MONTAGNE: This time it involves a cancer drug that's critical in treating children with leukemia and bone cancer. Specialists say supplies are running critically short, and if they run out, that could compromise the chances of a cure for thousands of children.
As NPR's Richard Knox reports federal health officials say they are trying to head off the crisis.
RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: The drug is called methotrexate. It's been a mainstay of cancer treatment for six decades. Doctors inject it directly into the spines of patients with acute leukemia.
Dr. Howard Weinstein says that's the only way to prevent the cancer from spreading to the brain. But supplies of methotrexate are dwindling fast at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he practices.
DR. HOWARD WEINSTEIN: Based upon our current outlook for the next two weeks, if we don't get any supply, we're going to be out of methotrexate in probably a couple of weeks.
KNOX: Doctors everywhere are in a panic. Here's Dr. Bruce Bostrom of Children's Hospital and Clinics of Minnesota.
DR. BRUCE BOSTROM: We're probably good for a few weeks. But if we don't get any we'll have to do some substitutions or delays of therapy, and give the high-dose methotrexate later when it's available.
KNOX: Bostrom says doctors just don't know how that's going to affect patients' chance of a cure, which is at least 90 percent with the right treatment.
Brenda Carr's four-year-old daughter, Rowen, is a patient at Bostrom's hospital.
BRENDA CARR: What I just couldn't believe was that there was nothing really to prevent this from happening. You know, it just - it gets really frustrating. I try to stay logical about it. But unfortunately, you know, I'm a mom.
KNOX: The reason for this particular shortage is that a principal supplier of injectable methotrexate, Ben Venue Labs in Ohio, shut down in November after it flunked an inspection by the Food and Drug Administration.
Erin Fox, of the University of Utah, says the FDA found a long list of serious problems.
ERIN FOX: If you want to read something to give you nightmares, you can read about mold on the walls and rust from machinery falling into the vials. It really provides a very grim picture of a crumbling factory.
KNOX: She says most people don't realize how decrepit many U.S. drug plants are, especially those that make generic drugs. But the FDA says the methotrexate crisis may be narrowly averted.
Valerie Jensen of the agency's drug shortage office says three other manufacturers are promising to ramp up production of methotrexate.
VALERIE JENSEN: We're hearing good news from them this week, that they will be having additional supplies.
KNOX: If all goes smoothly, Jensen says more of the drug should be coming out by the end of this month, just as U.S. hospitals reach the end of their supplies.
JENSEN: What the companies are telling us, we do see that meeting patient needs over the coming weeks.
KNOX: Brenda Carr, the Minneapolis mother, has her fingers crossed. But she's skeptical.
CARR: This isn't the first time to be on the brink of drug shortages, especially in cancer treatments. I don't want another mom to have to be thinking about whether or not their child is going to get the medication that they need.
KNOX: Experts say there certainly will be other parents who'll have to worry about other shortages.
Richard Knox, NPR News.
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