Thalidomide Yields One of Its Secrets.
The drug thalidomide first burst onto the public's consciousness in the 1960s when a series of babies were born with severe limb deformities. They ranged from missing fingers to missing whole limbs. Depending on when the drug was taken, babies suffered other disabling effects and death. The common factor was found to be an anti nausea drug called thalidomide. This drug was pivotal in putting to an end the blythe confidence that a pill could cure any problem with no side effects.
The numbers vary from source to source as no proper census was ever taken, but it has been claimed that there were between ten and twenty thousand babies born disabled as a consequence of the drug Thalidomide. There are approximately 5,000 survivors alive today, around the world. Never counted and never to be known, are the numbers of babies miscarried, or stillborn, let alone the number of family members and parents who have suffered over the years.
By the time Thalidomide was withdrawn in 1961 up to 10,000 children had been born with malformed limbs and other birth defects. Since then, it has come back onto the market as a treatment for leprosy and a form of cancer called multiple myeloma. In the United States access to thalidomide is tightly regulated, and women must submit a negative pregnancy test each month before they can refill a prescription. But the drug is more readily available in some other countries, allowing thalidomide's characteristic birth defects to resurface.
Many lives were saved in the United States by Frances Oldham Kelsey who stalled the marketing of thalidomide in the US until the reports of birth defects starting pouring in from Canada and Europe. After the debacle of thalidomide, new more rigorous procedures were initiated before new drugs could enter the market.
A scientist, Neil Vargesson at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, observed the limb malformations in babies born to women receiving treatment for leprosy. He eventually teased out of the complex action of thalidomide that it restricts blood vessel growth in the fetal limbs leading to the characteristic malformations. He is hoping that his work will lead to a safer, yet still effective drug against Hansen's Disease(leprosy).