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Cancer Drug Shortage Suspends Chemo for Jacksonville Patient

8:37 AM, Nov 17, 2011   |    comments
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Cancer treatments halted. Research delayed. People dying. Life saving drugs unavailable.

A drug shortage in the U.S. is being investigated by Congress. In October, President Obama signed an executive order requiring the FDA to keep a better handle on those shortages.

That's welcome news to Jacksonville couple Donell and Donnie Horner, who still can't believe their ordeal when the drug treating Donell's cancer simply ran out.

"When I really knew it was getting late was when my hair started to grow back. That's when I knew,"said Donell Horner. 

"I thought 'OK now, we are going into reverse.'"

Horner wears a wig to cover her bald head and said losing her hair was an outward sign that the drugs she was taking for her cancer were doing their job. But after just one chemo treatment, her husband got a phone call from the doctor.

"When he said, 'Donnie, are you sitting down?' I thought, 'Oh no, what did the latest blood test show?' And he said, 'Oh no, it's not the blood test. Her blood work is great. There just isn't any more Taxol', one of the two drugs in her chemo cocktail, and I said, 'What does that mean?' and he said, 'There isn't any'," said Donnie Horner.

Taxol, a staple in breast cancer treatment, simply disappeared from the market. The Horners were told it should be available in a couple of weeks, and at that point the chemo would resume.

"It's game day for us. We make a decision first quarter. Off we go. We are ready to kill this and win. Then someone calls a time-out and you don't know how long it's gonna be," said Donnie Horner.

"Two to three weeks turns into a month, turns into six weeks turns into eight weeks and still no drug. This instills doubt and doubt is not to the benefit of any person, much less a cancer patient," he said.

The question of how this could have happened is one Congress has begun investigating and the answers aren't easy.

"How in the United States of America can we run out of drugs like chemotherapy for a cancer patient when that's all you've got?" said Donell.

Dr. Lawrence Solberg, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic, recently testified before a congressional committee about the shortages.

"This problem is really important. I sort of categorize it as a tsunami of medical risk," said Solberg.

He said 210 drugs were in short supply this year - a record number. He said he believes that tsunami is building.

At least 15 deaths nationwide have been blamed on drug shortages, and scientific research into potential cures has been upended.

"They've estimated clinical trials have had to be slowed down or altered because of the national shortage of some of these drugs," Solberg said.

So what's causing the problem? Follow the money, Horner said.

"What I found striking was that Taxol in July was $55 a vial and now it's $655 a vial. So the price is more than multiplied by a factor of 10 and now it's all of a sudden available. So one can't help but doubt, is this a real shortage or was it contrived to create excessive demand?"

"There's an entire market called the gray market; the average mark up is 650 percent," Solberg said.

That gray market consists of middle men, who see a shortage coming and buy up the drugs only to resell them at a higher profit. It's all perfectly legal, but is now the subject of a congressional investigation and it's only one part of a complex problem.

As for the Horners? By week six or seven they were thinking of flying to Mexico.

Taxol finally became available two months after they were told it should only be a couple of weeks, and Donnell Horner is once again getting chemo, but she wants answers.

"Congress needs to find out what these shortages are truly all about," she said.

Horner wants to know not just for herself, but for the thousands of cancer patients still waiting. "I still say prayers for them every day because I know there are cancer patients out there missing their chemo treatment and they can't afford to," she said.  "Not even one."

Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland has launched an investigation into drug-shortage profiteering and so-called gray markets.

He wants to make it illegal to hoard drugs and resell them at those huge mark ups.

MORE: Read the president's executive order.

MORE: View the pending legislation on the shortage.

MORE: View the investigation into gray markets.

COMPLAIN TO YOUR REPRESENTATIVES!

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