“This is dire,” said Valerie Jensen, associate director of the Food and Drug Administration’s drug shortages program. “Supplies are just not meeting demand.”
The drug is methotrexate, and the cancer it treats is known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or A.L.L., which most often strikes children ages 2 to 5. It is an unusually virulent cancer of white blood cells that are overproduced in bone marrow and invade other parts of the body.
The cancer commonly spreads to the lining of the spine and brain, and oncologists prevent this by injecting large quantities of preservative-free methotrexate directly into the spinal fluid. The preservative can cause paralysis when injected into the spinal column, so cannot be used for this disease. Methotrexate is also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
Ben Venue Laboratories was one of the nation’s largest suppliers of injectable preservative-free methotrexate, but the company voluntarily suspended operations at its plant in Bedford, Ohio, in November because of “significant manufacturing and quality concerns,” the company announced.
Since then, supplies of methotrexate have gradually dwindled to the point where oncologists now say they are fearful that shortfalls may occur at many hospitals within two weeks.
I’m not really sure what’s going on with the manufacturing of MTX. According to the FDA, several companies that make the injection form of the drug simply decided to stop making vials of certain sizes. I don’t know why and haven’t been to be able to find much information about it. I’m generally not a conspiracy theorist and tend to (want to) believe people will do the right thing, but there doesn’t seem to be much reason for creating a shortage of a drug that treats childhood cancer—and several autoimmune diseases.
Which brings me to my short rant. Just a post script for the N.Y. Times: Many of us are on methotrexate, and we don’t all have rheumatoid arthritis. We have lupus and psoriatic arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis and so many other diseases. Maybe a better way to note that MTX doesn’t only treat cancer is to say that people with certain kinds of autoimmune conditions—like R.A.—also take the drug. Just saying.