Shortage of cancer drug worries doctors, parents in DFW

Melanie McCauley of Fort Worth was relieved when doctors told her last month that her daughter's leukemia is in remission and that she's hopefully on her way to a full cure.

But now McCauley is worried that 4-year-old Olivia Adkins won't always get a chemotherapy drug she needs to keep the disease at bay.

A critical shortage of methotrexate has doctors and hospitals nationwide concerned because it's the key treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a common childhood cancer.

On Tuesday, one top federal regulator said the shortage should ease before hospitals run out of the drug in a couple of weeks. But drugmakers are giving few details about how they will find a long-term solution to end the problem.

With the drug, doctors say, they can cure nearly 90 percent of the roughly 3,500 American children and teens diagnosed with this cancer each year.

Four companies that make it are being urged to try to quickly step up production to prevent deaths.

A senator and three doctors groups sent the pleas to the companies late Monday, saying that hospitals will run out of the drug in days or weeks, increasing chances that young patients who might otherwise survive will die.

In Fort Worth, Cook Children's Medical Center has met the demand for the drug.

"We are not out of the drug," spokeswoman Winifred King said. "Our pharmacy is looking for sources every day through wholesalers and manufacturers."

The generic drug, usually used in conjunction with other drugs, is essential in treating the disease. Alternative drugs exist but are less effective, said Paul Bowman, pediatrics department chairman at the University of North Texas Health Science Center and a clinical oncologist at Cook Children's.

"Statistically, if you had to do without the drugs for a period of four to six weeks it would compromise their ability to stay in remission," Bowman said. "Physicians and all the team that's caring for the children will do whatever they can to find the resources to help them."

Olivia must continue to take methotrexate through early 2014 to kill any remaining leukemia cells, her mother said.

"Just because the hospital has enough supply, it may eventually affect Olivia. So we're just trying to get out there and say 'Hey, these drugs that are on shortage right now. That's just uncalled for,'" said McCauley, 26. "I'm just hoping that whatever happens, if she does have to make any changes to her treatment plan, that won't make her relapse."

McCauley urges the public to tell the manufacturers that the drug is important to patients with leukemia and other diseases.

Specialty groups representing researchers and doctors who care for children with cancer say the methotrexate shortage began in December when production declined.

That drop resulted primarily because Ben Venue Laboratories temporarily closed its factory in Bedford, Ohio, in November. Federal inspectors had said the company had not been properly maintaining