Drug shortages across the country hit a 10-year high during the first quarter of 2023, according to a report by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. About 300 drugs are in short supply and several of them are cancer drugs. 

The shortage has become a life-threatening situation for cancer patients since many of the drugs they need have no substitutions.

As of May 2023, these 15 cancer drugs were on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s drug shortage list:

  • Amifostine 
  • Azacitidine 
  • Capecitabine 
  • Carboplatin 
  • Cisplatin 
  • Cytarabine 
  • Dacarbazine 
  • Dexamethasone 
  • Fludarabine 
  • Hydrocortisone 
  • Leucovorin 
  • Lutetium Lu 177 
  • Methotrexate 
  • Pentostatin 
  • Streptozocin

Some patients are being forced to try treatments that may not work as well as certain medications. Others could die waiting for the drugs to become available. A 2020 study published by the British Medical Journal found that every month a cancer treatment is delayed raises the risk of death by about 10%.

Dr. Patrick Timmins with Women’s Cancer Care Associates in Albany, New York, said his practice ran out of some chemotherapy drugs on May 9, despite 25 patients who were still in need.

“Our patients are in a war, and what we’re doing is we’re taking their weapons away,” Timmins said. “It’s completely ridiculous that we can’t figure out a way, at least in the short run, to get our patients treated, and in the long run to solve these recurring problems.”

Patients are also struggling to find other necessary items for cancer care such as intravenous saline solutions.

Preventing Drug Shortages

There isn’t one definitive reason behind this recent drug shortage, but some believe it may be a combination of supply shortages, higher demand and limited manufacturing capacity. Since the majority of the drugs currently on the shortage list are generic, low profit margins could create a lack of interest from drug makers.

A January 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office called on the FDA to improve its Foreign Inspection Program. The FDA has been accused of falling behind on inspections, which could also impact drug prices and market stability.

The Biden administration has created a team to find a long-term fix for drug shortages. Plans being considered include tax incentives for generic drug makers along with increased transparency concerning generic drug quality. Current incentives favor drug manufacturers with the lowest prices. 

The FDA released a drug shortage guide in May 2023 to help improve the situation. Part of the FDA’s solution includes requiring drugmakers to give the agency advance notice about potential drug shortages and the reasons behind the problem.