‘Critical’ chemotherapy drug often used to treat childhood cancer in short supply

Posted at 10:22 PM, Oct 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-31 22:23:46-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — One of the most commonly used drugs to treat childhood cancers is becoming increasingly harder to find.

Vincristine is used to treat types of lymphoma, various types of tumors and leukemia, the leading type of cancer in children.

It's considered a crucial type of drug in cancer treatment because it actually changes the machinery inside the cell when it is going through rapid division, as is the case with cancer cell development. Effectively, it is intended to target those rapidly-dividing cancer cells.

"This is a really crucial drug," said Dr. James Fahner, Division Chief of Pediatric Oncology at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital. "It's been available for many, many years and is now kind of a cornerstone of the drug combinations that we use to treat almost every form of childhood cancer."

At Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, hundreds of patients suffering from childhood cancer use the drug on a regular basis. Vincristine can be given as often as once a week, depending on the type and stage of cancer.

Recently though, multiple hospitals have been scrambling to find the drug. Vincristine was previously made by two manufacturers. Earlier this year, one manufacturer stopped making it, leaving Pfizer as the sole manufacturer of the drug. The company says this is the main reason why the drug has been in low supply.

During Fahner's regular appointments with his patients, families have been asking about the drug and concerned they may no longer be able to get it.

"It is heartbreaking because in the midst of already dealing with a very challenging diagnosis and difficult treatment, you kind of just assume that, of course, the tools will be there to be able to treat the disease and the medications will be there when we need them," said Fahner.

Luckily, Spectrum Health and Helen DeVos Children's Hospital has not been hit by the shortage. The hospital will continue monitoring the amount of Vincristine available to them.

As the current and sole manufacturer of this chemotherapy treatment, Pfizer sent this statement to one of our sister stations about the problem:

"Due to a competitor's outage, we are expediting additional shipments of this critical product over the next few weeks to support three to four times our typical production output."