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What happens when a cancer-fighting drug is effective but not profitable? Patients scramble as manufacturer slows production

Gene therapyImagine having cancer, and finding out there’s a shortage of the life-saving medicine and you are no longer eligible to receive it.

This is what happened to Bob Field. The 72-year-old bank executive was diagnosed with fast-acting bladder cancer and was set to receive his second dose of the drug BCG, an immunotherapy treatment that boosts the body’s natural defenses to fight cancer.

Field learned he was no longer eligible for the d

rug. New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where Field was being treated, was running low on BCG supplies and, like other large hospitals nationwide, had changed its distribution policies to prioritize newly diagnosed patients with active cancers.

Drug shortages are quite common in U.S., STAT News reports. These shortages can happen because of natural disasters or high demand from a disease outbreak.

Profit is also a consideration. And that’s what happened with BCG.

Merck is the only manufacturer of BCG in both the U.S. and Europe. Although the drug has been used since the 1970s, it’s not easy to produce and it is relatively low-priced at between $100 and $200 per dose. Bottom line: BCG is not a big moneymaker, so there is little incentive to boost production.

Dr. Robert Abouassaly, urologist at Cleveland Clinic, described the BCG shortage as “a huge deal.”

“We don’t have any alternatives that are as effective for these patients,” he told STAT.

Merck acknowledges the shortage and says it is working to produce 600,000 to 870,000 vials of BCG this year. But the company has not said when the supply will be available.

“In a word, I’m horrified. Depressed, annoyed, angry,” said Field, who is calling hospitals and clinics in his state to see if he can find the drug he needs.

Have you had to wait for a drug or treatment because of a shortage or cost? Share your story with Voices for Affordable Health.