Entries in Leukemia (14)


Study: Immune Therapy Promising in Treatment of Advanced Leukemia Images(NEW YORK) -- An experimental form of immune therapy may hold the key to successful treatment of a deadly form of adult leukemia, a preliminary study suggests.

According to HealthDay News, the study, which included just five adults with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), showed promise as treatment for the disease.

ALL progresses quickly and often kills patients within weeks if left untreated. According to HealthDay, the first treatment usually involves three separate treatments of chemotherapy drugs. While that treatment often helps patients experience a remission, the cancer often returns.

Dr. Renier Brentjens, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and his team decided to test a different course of action.

The five patients in the study received infusions of their own immune system's T-cells, but the T-cells were genetically engineered with chimeric antigen receptors to help them recognize and destroy the leukemia cells.

All give patients experienced remission, with one patient reaching remission within eight days, according to HealthDay News.

Four of the patients proceeded to have a bone marrow transplant to aid in their recovery. The fifth was deemed ineligible due to heart disease and other health conditions.

The treatment studied by Dr. Brentjens, known as adoptive T-cell therapy, is not available outside of the research setting, but does amaze researchers in its potential. Much research must still be done before the treatment would be considered for non-research use.

Nearly 6,100 people are diagnosed with ALL each year, and more than 1,400 of those will die, according to statistics from the National Cancer Institute.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Doctors Find Success Using Retooled HIV to Fight Leukemia

Christine Chardo Photography for The Tiny Sparrow Foundation(PHILADELPHIA) -- In April, Emma Brooke Whitehead’s leukemia seemed unbeatable.

Emma, a 6-year-old from Phillipsburg, Pa., had been fighting the disease for nearly two years and doctors at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said there were no standard treatments left.  So they took a gamble on a new, potentially groundbreaking treatment -- using HIV.

They removed millions of Emma’s disease-fighting white blood cells and used genetically altered HIV -- a virus that easily gets into human immune systems -- to turn Emma’s cells into a kind of immunological “directed missile,” specifically programmed to destroy the leukemia cells.  The cells were then returned to Emma’s body.

“All of the things that make the HIV virus able to cause disease have been removed from this particular virus whose only purpose is to put a gene into a cell,” said Dr. Stephan Grupp, a pediatric oncologist at CHOP who uses HIV to infiltrate the immune system. “There is no danger of infection and there is no longer the HIV virus.”

Kari Whitehead, Emma’s mother, said that initially after the treatment Emma became very ill -- she had a fever as high as 105 degrees -- and doctors warned the family that she might not make it through the night.

Grupp then gave the second grader a rheumatoid arthritis drug “off label.”  In arthritis, the drug was meant to block a specific part of the body’s immune reaction, part caused by white blood cells called T cells. In Emma’s case, it blocked the side effect of the cancer treatment. In just 12 hours, she stabilized.

“She was the first child in the world they tried it on and they told us they didn’t know what to expect,” Whitehead told ABC News. “They do feel now that the arthritis drug that they used will keep the kids in the future from getting any where close to that [sick].”

Grupp says that Emma, now eight months past her treatment, is in complete remission.

“She has no leukemia in her body for any test that we can do -- even the most sensitive tests,” he said. “We need to see that the remission goes on for a couple of years before we think about whether she is cured or not. It is too soon to say.”

He said that the treatment is being tried experimentally at two hospitals and was intended for childhood leukemia that has returned and no longer responds to chemotherapy. He said doctors hoped the T cell treatment would eventually replace bone marrow transplants.

“This treatment was really her [Emma's] only chance,” Grupp said. “She has been treated with extended chemotherapy and she wasn’t getting any better. … For me, it’s incredible.”

Whitehead said Emma, now 7, looked and felt “amazing” and had reunited with her dog Lucy.

“There is a big difference,” she said. “She has a ton of energy. She’s back with her class. She was even able to play a little bit of soccer. So she’s doing wonderful right now.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Mom Enrolls 7-Year-Old in Medical Marijuana Program

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- When 7-year-old Mykayla Comstock was diagnosed with leukemia in July, it was less than three days before her mother filed Oregon medical marijuana paperwork so the child could take lime-flavored capsules filled with cannabis oil.

The decision to give Mykayla the capsules came naturally to Erin Purchase, Mykayla's mother, who believes marijuana has healing power.  But doctors aren't so sure it's a good idea.

"The first doctor was not for it at all," Purchase told ABC News. "Basically she blew up at us and told us to transfer to another facility."

Their new doctor knows that Mykayla takes about a gram of cannabis oil a day -- half in the morning and half at night -- but doesn't discuss it with them.

"This is our daughter," Purchase, 25, said. "If they don't agree with our personal choices, we'd rather they not say anything at all."

It's legal for a minor to enroll in the Oregon medical marijuana program as long as the child's parent or legal guardian consents and takes responsibility as a caregiver.

And Mykayla is not alone.

There are currently four other patients enrolled in the Oregon medical marijuana program between the ages of 4 and 9, six between the ages of 10 and 14, and 41 between the ages of 15 and 17, according to the Oregon Public Health Division. Severe pain, nausea, muscle spasms and seizures are among the top conditions cited for medical marijuana use.

Mykayla first started to feel sick in May, when she developed a rash, cough and night sweats. By mid-July, doctors found a mass in her chest and diagnosed her with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia a few days later. The family relocated from Pendleton, Ore. to Portland to be near Randall Children's Hospital for treatment, which included chemotherapy.

At first, Mykayla wasn't responding well to her treatment, and doctors said she might need a bone marrow transplant. Then she started taking the cannabis oil pills. By early August, Mykayla was in remission and the transplant was no longer necessary.

"I don't think it's just a coincidence," Purchase said. "I credit it with helping -- at least helping -- her ridding the cancer from her body."

Purchase said she, too, uses medical marijuana. She said it has helped with her kidney and liver disease since 2010, adding, "I feel that it saved my life."

However, Dr. Donna Seger, the executive director of the Tennessee Poison Center and a professor at Vanderbilt University, said cannabis has no effect on liver or kidney function, and is not a medicine for cancer.

"If it does anything, it decreases immunity," she said. "It doesn't fight cancer."

Seger said she has several concerns about a 7-year-old taking pills filled with cannabis oil because there is little research on its long-term effects on children. Cannabis could have potentially negative effects on cognitive development in children, and little is known about regimens lasting months or years.

Purchase said she wasn’t nervous at all about prescribing pot to her daughter, but was unsure what dosage to administer. She started Mykayla with .07-grams at a time.

"It took a while to get her adjusted to it," Purchase said. "She acted more funny when she first started taking it and after a while gained tolerance. Now, when she takes it, you can't even tell. She's very normal."

But Dr. Michel Dubois, who works in NYU Langone's Pain Management Center, is concerned about the addictive qualities of pot, as well as the 50 to 60 different chemicals contained in cannabis oil pills. He said the capsules shouldn’t be administered for more than a month or two.

Although Mykayla's doctors told Purchase she was in remission on Aug. 6 when her blood cell counts returned to normal, Mykayla will undergo two and a half or three more years of chemotherapy so that she can one day be officially cured, Purchase said. That could mean years of more medical marijuana.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Illinois Boy Wins $1,000, Donates Money to Neighbor Fighting Leukemia

Courtesy Trisha Kielty(EDWARDSVILLE, Ill.) -- Forget toys and video games. When Wyatt Erber won $1,000, the Illinois third-grader knew exactly what he wanted to do with the money.

The 8-year-old gave his winnings to the family of his young neighbor, 2-year-old Cara Kielty, who is battling leukemia.

"He was really aware of what cancer is," said Wyatt's mom, Noelle Erber. "When he found out Cara had cancer, his heart sank."

One week after Cara Kielty was diagnosed, Noelle Erber asked her son if he'd like to enter a scavenger hunt sponsored by a local bank. The grand prize was $1,000.

"Wyatt immediately said, 'Let's do it, and if I win the $1,000, I want to give it to Cara,'" Erber said. "The idea of being able to give a thousand dollars wowed him."

Winning seemed like a long shot, but Wyatt was determined to win the money for Cara, Erber said.

Together they visited businesses in their hometown of Edwardsville, gradually collecting the 20 clues needed to complete the scavenger hunt.

When they found out they had been the first team to turn in all the clues, Wyatt called Cara's mother, Trisha Kielty.

"I knew he was wanting to do it for Cara, which is the sweetest thing ever," she said. "But an 8-year-old giving adults money? I tried to protest to his mom. Then she told me he asked how much chemo this would buy Cara. He gets it."

The Kieltys, who have been close friends of the Erbers since they moved to their street five years ago, decided to accept the money and "focus on the fact Wyatt is such a gracious kid," Trisha Kielty said.

Cara has always taken a shine to Wyatt, who is frequently over playing with her 8-year-old brother, Connor.

"She grins ear-to-ear whenever Wyatt walks through the door," Kielty said.

The third-grader's act of generosity did not go unnoticed. A local charity matched his gift to the Kieltys. A man in Canada heard about the story and sent a letter praising Wyatt, along with $100 to give to the Kieltys for Cara's treatment.

Wyatt's mother said she couldn't be more proud of her son.

"He's always been a very sweet boy," she said. "I'm very lucky to call him my son."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Teen at Center of Abortion Debate Dies After Chemo Delay

Comstock/Thinkstock(SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic) -- A pregnant 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic took center stage in the abortion debate when she died last Friday of leukemia complications amid reports that doctors had delayed chemotherapy out of fear that it could terminate her pregnancy. The Dominican Republic has a strict anti-abortion law.

But the young woman's doctor at Semma Hospital in Santo Domingo told ABC News that the hospital had postponed chemotherapy not because of the country's abortion ban but because they were waiting for her bone marrow test results to come back from a hospital in New Jersey to determine what kind of leukemia she had.

The young woman, whose name has not been released, was admitted to the hospital on July 2, Dr. Tony Cabrera told ABC News. She told doctors she'd missed her period, and they immediately gave her a blood test and pelvic sonogram to determine she was pregnant.

Since chemotherapy interrupts tumor progression by halting the rapid division of cancer cells, "it's likely to also have an adverse effect on a rapidly dividing organism, such as an embryo," said Christina Chambers, at the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists' Collaborative Research Center in San Diego.

Dr. Lauren Streicher, an obstetrician at Northwestern University Hospital in Chicago, said doctors practicing in the United States generally recommend that cancer patients requiring chemotherapy terminate their pregnancies in their first trimester, "given the limitation of information about what generally happens at 10 weeks."

The young woman's mother, Rosa Hernandez, had urged doctors to give her daughter an abortion so she could undergo chemotherapy immediately, according to CNN, but Article 37 of the Dominican Republic's constitution prohibits abortion, claiming "the right to life is inviolable from conception until death." The doctors did not perform an abortion.

"My daughter's life is first. I know that [abortion] is a sin and that it goes against the law...but my daughter's health is first," Hernandez told CNN in July.

Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez Rodriguez, an archbishop in Santo Domingo, spoke out about the case after a Mass in late July, saying that a "direct abortion" was wrong, but "everything possible" should be done to save the life of this young woman, according to the news organization Dominican Today.

"Her situation can be saved, but we don't agree with performing an abortion directly," Rodriguez said.

Once the doctors received the test results from the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center in Morristown, N.J., they learned their patient had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which Cabrera said had a "very poor prognosis," especially for children more than 10 years old. (For its part, the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center has not confirmed that it ever processed these tests.)

The doctors started chemotherapy when the young woman was nine weeks' pregnant, just as her first trimester was ending, in late July, Cabrera said.

Speaking generally, said Dr. Brian Druker, an oncologist at the Oregon Health and Science University, a short delay in administering chemotherapy should not in itself drastically affect a patient's outcome.

"A delay of a couple of weeks should have no bearing on the outcome unless there was a complication that made someone's medical condition less able to handle therapy," said Druker.

But last Thursday night, the young patient had begun to cough up blood and was moved to the intensive care unit, where she was placed on a respirator, Cabrera said. She also had vaginal bleeding and severe respiratory distress.

She underwent a blood transfusion, but by 2 a.m. Friday, she'd miscarried, Cabrera said. A few hours later, she went into cardiac arrest. Doctors were able to revive her, but she died at 8 a.m. Friday.

Death was attributed to hypovolemic shock (not enough blood or fluid), alveolar hemorrhage, acute respiratory distress syndrome and acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Cabrera said.

After her daughter's death, Hernandez told CNN, "They have killed me. I'm dead, dead. I'm nothing....She was the reason for my existence. I no longer live. Rosa has died. Let the world know that Rosa is dead."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Leukemia Survival: The Younger You Are, the Better Your Chances

(NEW YORK) -- In the 1950s -- a heady time for scientific and medical advances -- the color television was introduced to the American public and Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine. But a diagnosis of acute leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer, would have been a sure death sentence.

Only 40 years later, scientists were not only busy cloning sheep and sending space probes to Mars, but they could also boast an almost 4,000 percent increase in survival rate for children with leukemia -- a figure that continues to rise.

More than 3,000 children are diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia every year, and while the cancer is more common in children younger than 5 years old, more than 12 percent of those diagnosed are older than 15.

In general, the prognosis for all of these young patients is good, with more than 85 percent still alive after five years. But for some reason, adolescents and teens don't seem to fare as well as their younger counterparts. How much worse they fared was not really known until today.

This revelation came with the results from the largest clinical trial to study how well chemotherapy worked against leukemia in adolescent and young adult patients, presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting in Chicago.

Researchers found that the five-year survival rate for adolescents and young adults was 80 percent, compared with younger children who enjoyed an 88.4 percent rate of survival. Moreover, those older than 15 were also about twice as likely to relapse or die from the treatment itself.

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. These rapidly reproducing cells travel quickly through the blood stream wreaking havoc and invading every nook and cranny of the human body, unless they are stopped. Normal treatment, using chemotherapy, takes three years to complete, isn't without its own downsides, and it doesn't work as well in some as it does in others.

Dr. Eric Larsen, medical director of the Maine Children's Cancer Program and lead study author, said in an ASCO news release that one reason older teens and young adults tend not to do as well is that not all types of leukemia are created equal -- in other words, older patients tend to have more deadly, less curable forms of the disease. He also noted that not only do these older patients tend to have a disease that is more resistant to chemotherapy, but they also experience more toxic side effects from the treatment they receive.

Other doctors said this double whammy deserves more consideration when treating teens and young adults with ALL.

"It's really a double-edged sword," says Dr. Peter Adamson, chairman of the Children's Oncology Group, the world's largest organization devoted to childhood and adolescent cancer research. "Their outcome isn't good, and their ability to tolerate treatment isn't good either."

Exactly why these differences exist in the first place is less clear. Adamson said the underlying disease may have different biological characteristics. Additionally, an important component of treatment involves taking a pill every day for more than two years.

"Compliance is harder for adolescents and young adults" Adamson says, explaining that this may also contribute to worse outcomes in this population.

And then there is the state of the research. More than 90 percent of children who get leukemia in the United States participate in studies like this one -- a "major factor" that has led to better cure rates, says Adamson. But, he notes, "One of the gaps has been in the older adolescent and young adults, where participation is not as high."

Whatever the reasons, Adamson says the results reported at today's meeting will help guide the Children's Oncology Group in designing additional clinical trials to both enhance leukemia control and reduce the toxicity of treatment in this sub-group of patients.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Radiation Therapy Linked to Secondary Cancers

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- While the number of cancer survivors has tripled since the 1970s and continues to grow, the cost of that survival for many has been the development of secondary cancers and cardiovascular disease related to radiation treatment, according to an upcoming report by a scientific committee.

The committee, convened by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, met over a period of five years to consider some of the most serious repercussions of radiation therapy and make recommendations to more comprehensively assess the risks related to treatment. They plan to issue a comprehensive report of their findings, and have also published commentary in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

"For many survivors, the cost of the cure of their cancer has been late, life-threatening effects of therapy," said Dr. Lois B. Travis, director of the Rubin Center for Cancer Survivorship at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "We recognized that secondary malignant neoplasms and cardiovascular disease are among the most serious adverse effects experienced by the growing number of survivors worldwide."

The development of these serious problems, she explained, are due to a combination of radiation therapy chemotherapy and other factors, including age, the environment, lifestyle habits and genetics.

Younger patients are especially susceptible to the effects of radiation, and the three cancers that have been most strongly associated with radiation are breast cancer, thyroid cancer and bone marrow cancers, including leukemia. Cardiovascular disease related to radiation therapy is most often associated with treatment for breast cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma, since radiation is applied to the chest.

While the committee focused its attention on radiation therapy, chemotherapy also carries the potential for life-threatening effects.

"With certain types of chemotherapy, there's an increased risk for developing leukemias," said Dr. Otis Brawley, medical director of the American Cancer Society.

Cole Whiting, just 10 years old, is now living with leukemia after beating another cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma of the sinuses, a few years back.

Shortly after completing 15 months of radiation treatment and chemotherapy for rhabdomyosarcoma, his family got word he developed yet another cancer -- acute myeloid leukemia.

"He was two weeks shy of finishing kindergarten when he got diagnosed. It was a result of the treatment he got for the first cancer," said his mother, Madonna Whiting. "It was even worse the second time, because we knew what we were in for having gone through it already."

Cole also suffers from problems with his short-term memory, has to regularly get growth hormone shots and take thyroid medication. He also found out that the roots of his teeth were destroyed, so all of his teeth will eventually fall out.

Whiting said the doctors did mention the possible long-term risks of Cole's cancer treatment, but at the time, all she could think about was dealing with his illness one day at a time.

"We had to do the chemotherapy to save my son's life," she said. "I wasn't even thinking about what could happen later at the time. I just wanted him to get well."

About 70 percent of children with cancer survive, and about 20 percent of those kids, like Cole, will experience five or more treatment-associated problems, Brawley said.

Childhood radiation may also have other effects later on, including fertility problems, stunted growth and cognitive deficits.

Clinicians say the benefits of radiation treatment for many types of cancer far outweigh the potential risks of experiencing serious adverse effects years later, and say radiation is now a lot safer than it once was.

"There is more advanced technology nowadays, and we can see structures we want to avoid and can shape the dose to avoid certain areas," said Dr. Candace Correa, assistant member of the Radiation Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. "Radiation is very important for cancer for many patients. It offers a very big treatment advantage."

"We try to use radiation as sparingly as possible, but unfortunately, it is frequently part of the cure in a lot of cancers and it's absolutely necessary," said Brawley.

Travis said that even though there are risks associated with radiation, there are certain changes patients can make to reduce their risk of secondary cancers.

"For example, patients can stop smoking. Smoking has been shown to multiply the risk of treatment-associated lung cancer after Hodgkin lymphoma," she said. "We need to reinforce basic health messages, such as advising patients to stop smoking or make dietary modifications."

Health promotion, she continued, should be a vital component of cancer treatment plans.

The committee also recommends that there be long-term follow-up of cancer patients to evaluate risks of developing secondary cancers and other treatment-related effects.

"It's not enough just to cure a cancer patient," Travis added. “We have to think downstream and ask what is the potential cost of the cure to the patient in the future."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Leukemia Patient Nearly Dies; Twin Has Idea to Save Thousands

Courtesy of Graham Douglas(NEW YORK) -- For nearly 18 years, Graham and Britton Douglas believed they were fraternal twins.  That was until Britton needed a bone-marrow transplant because chemotherapy for his leukemia had failed.

The Fort Worth, Texas, brothers learned that they were identical twins, sharing the same DNA, and therefore Britton could not receive his brother's bone marrow because their genetic make-up was too similar to fight the cancer.

Today, at 27, Britton Douglas is a healthy, successful Dallas lawyer, thanks to a bone marrow donation by a stranger.  But Graham, knowing that he nearly lost his only sibling, has been on a mission for nearly a decade to find better ways to get more Americans to become donors.

He came up with a simple concept that could save the lives of tens of thousands of Americans with leukemia who are waiting for a bone-marrow transplant: packing a swab kit inside a box of bandage strips.

A senior creative at the New York City advertising agency Droga 5, Graham found his inspiration last year while teaching a portfolio class at a commercial arts school.

Year after year, he has challenged his students to find a creative solution to attract more donors.  Two students he refers to as the "Spanish team" -- Alfredo and Alberto -- came up with the "germ" of an idea last year, and it has now hit the market.

The consumer healthcare company Help Remedies partnered with Graham and the world's largest bone marrow donor center, DKMS, to release the new product -- "help I've cut myself & I want to save a life."  The cost is $4.

Before applying a bandage strip to a minor cut, consumers can swab their blood and then send the sample in a self-addressed, stamped envelope, along with their age and email address, to DKMS.

The donor center will then follow up to get more information on how the consumer can become a donor.  All potential donors are anonymous and there is no obligation to donate bone marrow, even if a match is found.

The three-year-old start-up Help Remedies is known for its minimalist packaging and unusual product names.  For now, the over-the-counter marrow registry kit is only available on its website.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Shortage of Child Leukemia Drug Could Be Avoided, FDA Says

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday that a shortage on the life-saving drug used in childhood leukemia treatments could be averted.

Last week, doctors spoke out about the looming shortage of methotrexate -- a key drug known to help cure some young patients with pymphoblastic leukemia when combined with other drugs in high doses.  Some oncologists expressed worry the drug may run out in as little as two weeks, HealthDay reports.

But Tuesday, the FDA showed more optimism.  

"We are seeing the companies [that make methotrexate] respond to this shortage and they are planning on some very large releases, and we are planning on having the situation resolved," Valerie Jensen, associate director of the FDA's drug shortage program, said Tuesday, according to HealthDay.

Hospira, one of the three manufacturers of the drug based in Illinois, has said the company will boost production of the drug to "make up for the gap," HealthDay reported Tuesday.  The other two makers of the crucial drug -- Mylan Inc. in Pennsylvania and Sandoz US Inc. in New Jersey -- both say they also plan to increase methotrexate production.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Critical Shortage of Children's Leukemia Drug

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(HOUSTON) -- Medication used to treat the most common form of childhood leukemia is in short supply, adding to the largest nationwide shortage of critical lifesaving hospital medications in nearly a decade.

All five pharmaceutical companies that make the injection drug methotrexate, which treats acute lymphoblastic leukemia by slowing the growth of cancer cells, have either slowed or stopped manufacturing of the drug, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The companies have cited high demand or manufacturing delays as reasons for the shortage.

If the shortage continues, physicians and pharmacists fear thousands of children will be left without lifesaving treatment.

"This, to us in oncology, is a national crisis," said Brooke Bernhardt, clinical pharmacy specialist in the department of hematology and oncology at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston.

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According to Dr. Michael Link, pediatric oncologist and president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, some hospital pharmacies have reported having only a couple weeks of supply left.

Many oncologists are especially worried about the shortage of the preservative-free form of methotrexate, which is considered less toxic.

Only the preservative-free methotrexate can be injected into the spinal fluid of cancer patients to prevent the spread and recurrence of the disease.

Each year, nearly 3,000 children and adolescents under age 20 are diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. Eighty percent of children are successfully treated.

The agency said it's uncertain when the next batch of methotrexate will be available.

Drugs for heart patients, some antibiotics, and intravenous drugs have been hard for hospitals to find, but cancer drugs have arguably taken the hardest hit.

To compensate, some physicians have had to split vials among patients or use comparable medications. In some cases, physicians may triage the medication, delaying treatment for some who may not need it immediately.

President Obama issued an executive order in October 2011 to reduce the dire shortage. The order instructed the Food and Drug Administration to broaden reporting of potential drug shortages, expedite regulatory reviews that can help prevent shortages, and examine whether potential shortages have led to price gouging.

The drug shortage has compromised or delayed care for some patients and may have led to otherwise preventable deaths.

While the FDA can oversee imports of drugs that are in short supply, it cannot regulate how much a company can make. In fact, manufacturers are not required to report shortages to the FDA.

The amount of a drug made available within a hospital is set by an agreement between the hospital and the manufacturer.

Limited manufacturing, lagging production time and lack of profits from these drugs contribute to the shortages. The production costs for some drugs can outweigh the money that companies can make from them, since many drugs now have cheaper generic alternatives. So manufacturers stop making the drugs.

Since these medications are mainly housed in hospitals, most patients won't know they can't have them until they really need them.

"Many physicians may be willing to mention the shortage to the family because they're just as frustrated," said Bernhardt.

However, Bernhardt said, that supply counts depend on location. Some hospitals may not be experiencing a shortage at all, she said.

"We don't want to stir up fear, but [families] should remain in contact with their physician," said Bernhardt.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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