Louisville hospitals answering a call for help in treating young cancer patients

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE)- Louisville hospitals are stepping up to provide a much needed cancer drug to patients at Kosair Children's Hospital. The drug, methotrexate, treats Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. It's a form of childhood cancer that is extremely curable when treated with the drug that's now in short supply.

The main problem is that in November the nation's largest supplier suspended operations. Supply is now reportedly at risk of running out within two weeks.

"We can beg, borrow and coerce as best we can" said Dr. Sal Bertolone. Dr. Bertolone is a UofL pediatric oncologist who treats patients at Kosair Children's Hospital.  

He's making calls to all area hospitals asking for any supply they can spare. About 18 of his young cancer patients are currently being treated with the liquid form of methotrexate. The pill form of the drug, used for other medical conditions, is readily available.

It's the liquid version that's injected into the spine of ALL patients and in high doses. The youngest patients actually require a preservative-free version of methotrexate and Brown Cancer Center was able to supply enough for Kosair to treat patients at least two weeks.

Dr. Bertolone calls the drug the 'gold standard' for ALL treatment. Specifically the toughest form of ALL which involves the T-cells.  

"We've identified that the high dose methotrexate in particular, will increase that cure rate from about 65% to about 85 to 90%" said Dr. Bertolone.

Right now there's not another drug with that proven success rate.

"When Dr. Bertolone called we said we want to help you, we want to do whatever we can" said Cathy Whalen. Whalen is the pharmacy manager at Brown Cancer Center.  

She says they deal with an ongoing shortage of about 30 drugs their patients need.  

Short supplies are blamed on all sorts reasons. "It can be quality issues or it can be when the company just decided sometimes they don't want to make that drug anymore, there's not enough volume of usage" said Whalen.

Some even speculate profits may be behind the problem. "You know, if you have limited resources, you'd rather produce a drug that's got a better margin than a drug that doesn't" said Dr. Bertolone.  

Methotrexate has been around for 50 years and is quite cheap, but when considering the lives it saves it's value skyrockets, at least to those with loved ones needing it.

Dr. Bertolone says in Washington, representatives from the Children's Oncology Group are meeting with Congressional leaders to push for imports of the drug from overseas and Canada. The FDA is asking US suppliers to increase production but that can't be forced. Right now it's a situation of waiting and hoping enough drug will arrive when patients need it.

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