Early in the 1950s a German drug company named Chemie-Grunenthal developed the drug Thalidomide. Thalidomide was found to be both an extremely effective sedative and an antiemetic (a drug that works to combat the feeling of nausea), and soon became exceptionally popular amongst pregnant women due to its inhibitory effect on morning sickness.
As was commonplace in the 20th century, the drug was tested on rodents before being put on the market; scientists found that the way in which the animals reacted to the drug gave no cause for concern and by 1960 Thalidomide was being produced by 14 different pharmaceutical companies and was available over the counter in 46 countries.
However, Thalidomide was never tested on pregnant women before being released to the public. This fatal mistake subsequently led to the deaths of approximately 2,000 children and substantial birth defects being suffered by an additional 10,000. Thalidomide taken on the 20th day of pregnancy caused central brain damage, day 21 would damage the eyes, day 22 the ears and face, day 24 the arms, and leg damage would occur if taken up to day 28, known as thalidomide embryopathy. The drug was responsible for these deformities and permanently altered the lives of many, many young children.
Following a groundswell of protest and revolt from the general public, the drug was rightfully pulled from the market in most countries in 1961, with Canada being the last in 1962. Governments from all around the world vowed to their people that it would never be used again. It must also be noted that despite such damning evidence, Grunenthal is yet to accept liability for the suffering they have caused these children and their families.
However, in 1964, Israeli physician Jacob Sheskin made the incredible discovery that Thalidomide can effectively treat the symptoms of leprosy. Furthermore, when Judah Folkman carried out extensive research into the effects Thalidomide can have on cancerous tumours in the 1990s, it was discovered that the drug significantly inhibited the development and growth of tumours; they physically could not expand when treated with Thalidomide. These remarkable discoveries were furthered in 1993 and 1994 by Judah Folkman and Robert D’Amato, who discovered that the drug also helped prevent blood cancer and angiogenesis (the development of new blood vessels).
As a result of these discoveries, Thalidomide was re-introduced into several countries, primarily Brazil, and distributed to the poor who lacked sufficient access to healthcare. Despite the strictly controlled production, dispensing and prescription of Thalidomide, between 2005 and 2010 it was reported that at least 100 children suffered from thalidomide embryopathy (physical deformity as a result of exposure to the drug).
Giselle Cole, an advocate for Thalidomide victims’ rights, who was born with thalidomide embryopathy, stated that she “Would like to think that there’s no such thing as Thalidomide, that we have developed something that would allow us to bury Thalidomide. Literally. Destroy it. Get rid of it, so that there are no further discussions other than a note in history”. However, unfortunately this is not the case, and it begs the question, is reintroducing Thalidomide a risk worth taking?
Saskia (Deputy Head Girl)
Photo Credit – Thalidomide drug molecule
DR TIM EVANS / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Universal Images Group
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