If you have followed the news and this blog, you know that there is a nationwide shortage of Doxil, a chemotherapy drug used to treat recurrent ovarian cancer, multiple myeloma and Kaposi’s sarcoma. News of the shortage first surfaced in July 2011 with new supplies expected in mid or late August, 2011. However, that prediction from the drug distributor turned out to be wholly inaccurate.
The drug is owned and distributed by Janssen Products, LP, a Johnson & Johnson company. Ben Venue Laboratories in Bedford, Ohio, the manufacturing arm of Bedford Laboratories and a unit of Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH of Germany, manufactures Doxil under contract to Janssen.
To explain the Doxil shortage, Ben Venue’s representative said that the company is facing "manufacturing capacity constraints" that have held up some products, and it is working diligently to prioritize and expedite manufacturing for current orders." However, Ben Venue Labs has decided to exit the Doxil business and other contract manufacturing to focus more on its business as Bedford Laboratories, a producer of generic injectables, and avoid all the problems that have caused bans from Canada and Europe of Ben Venue products. In the meantime, as Bedford Laboratories, the company has discontinued manufacture of mainline cancer drugs cisplatin and carboplatin and has significant shortages of Taxol. It appears to focus on commonly prescribed and presumably more profitable drugs such as those that treat migraine (generic Imitrix), indigestion (generic Zantac) and high blood pressure (generic Inderol).
With Ben Venue moving on to greener pastures, who will J&J find to manufacture Doxil and how hard will they try? Doxil reportedly represents less than 1% of Johnson & Johnson revenues.
As of today, there is no indication that the Doxil shortage will end any time soon. Janssen's president, a cancer survivor himself, sympathizes with those affected by having treatment plans interrupted or changed. However, in 2010, Janssen chose to rely on one manufacturer to produce Doxil, even though in the past, it had a second manufacturer abroad, Schering Plough. Doxil also has no generic competition because it effectively still has patent protection in the US until 2014. Doxil's patent expired in 2009 but J&J/Janssen still has the monopoly under the Orphan Drug Act as a reward for acquiring the company which produced a drug for a rare condition-one affecting fewer than 200,000 people.
In fact, on November 19, 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that Ben Venue had stopped manufacturing drugs, including Doxil, altogether:
A troubled contract manufacturer, whose problems caused a shortage of Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ) cancer drug Doxil, has suspended manufacturing and distribution of products from its Ohio plant, saying routine preventive maintenance and other required actions were overdue. . . . Before its decision to halt production, Ben Venue had strained to balance factory remediation efforts with the need to continue supplying critical drugs, a newly released document shows.See also here.
Janssen knew or should have known that Ben Venue had a history of manufacturing and quality control problems that would lead shortages and thus should not have been the sole manufacturer in the world of Doxil (called Caelyx in other parts of the world.) The FDA recently issued an unusually lengthy 483 report showing complaints about quality control since 2006 and 48 GMP (good manufacturing practices) violations. Public records of these FDA inspections, articles about those inspections and an earlier FDA warning letter have been available since at least 2007. The European Medicines Agency also inspected Ben Venue and found quality control issues.
Not only is Doxil currently unavailable for most people who need it, the mainstay chemotherapies for ovarian cancer--cisplatin, carboplatin and taxol (placitaxel) are also in shortage. Cervical cancer and endometrial cancer are also disproportionately affected by these shortages. The common drugs used to treat cervical cancer, cisplatin, carboplatin, taxol (placitaxel) and fluorouracil, 5-FU, are all in shortage. Fluorouracil is also used to treat colorectal cancer and pancreatic cancer, which are obviously gender neutral cancers. And do not forget that Taxol is one of the mainstay treatments for breast cancer which is diagnosed in about 230,000 women per year in the U.S. with 2.5 million survivors. Endometrial cancer’s mainline chemo treatments are carboplatin, Taxol, doxorubicin and cisplatin, all of which are in short supply. Unfortunately, another cancer whose treatment is seriously affected is testicular cancer, for which 3 of 4 mainline chemo treatments (Bleomycin, Etoposide, and Cisplatin) have shortages. The following generic drug companies have mainline chemo shortages:
Taxol-- APP, Bedford, Hospira, Sandoz and Teva
Carboplatin-- APP, Bedford, Sandoz and Teva.
Cisplatin-- APP, Bedford, BMS and Teva.
Fluorouracil--APP, Teva, and Mylan
Bleomycin—APP, Bristol-Myers, Hospira and Teva (Bedford ceased manufacture)
Etoposide—APP, Bedford, Teva
Drug shortages, which according to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) as of today exceed 200 drugs, (the FDA, who receives voluntary reports of shortages from drug companies, lists over 170) do not just affect people with relatively rare cancers or just people with cancer in general. The shortages include anesthetics, IV propofol used for intubation when someone cannot breathe, injectable antibiotics such as streptomycin,and norepinephrine and labetalol which regulate emergency cases of low and high blood pressure respectively. So these shortages may affect any of us and most likely in an emergency setting when you rely on hospitals and medical personnel having the medications necessary to keep you alive. And as shortages of one drug occur, other substitute drugs have increased demand, which then can lead to their shortages. No relief seems to be in sight. As NPR says, drug shortages are "the new normal".
A hearing was held on Friday September 23, 2011 in the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Health about the drug shortages.
FACTS FROM THE HEARING (as reported by Ovarian Cancer National Alliance):
• 54 percent of shortages are due to quality control issues
• 21 percent of shortages are due to delays in manufacturing or capacity issues
• 99 percent of hospitals report experiencing one or more drug shortage in the first six months of 2011
• 66 percent of hospitals report an oncology drug shortage
• In an April 2011 survey, more than 90 percent of anesthesiologists reported at least one drug shortage at the time of the survey and 98 percent reported a shortage at some time during the past year
• The shortages have cost hospitals $415 million in drug and labor costs