For anyone suffering the debilitating effects of morning sickness, the thought of being able to take a pill to stop the constant feeling of nausea is extremely appealing.
But if you were told the medicine had been tested on Polish POW’s during World War II when scientists were carrying out experiments looking for antidotes to Typhus and to combat the effects of nerve gas, then you might not be quite so keen.
It is this link that Professor Ray Stokes from the University of Glasgow is hoping to establish as part of the ongoing campaign to obtain further compensation from the German government for an event that was so catastrophic that even now, over 50 years later, surviving numbers remain unknown e.g. Spain has only recently admitted the drug was distributed.
The official launch of the new ‘wonder drug’ Thalidomide took place on 1 October 1957 by German pharmaceutical firm Chemi Grünenthal. Developed as an anticonvulsant drug, it was said to be the answer to insomnia, coughs, colds and headaches and morning sickness.
There had been limited laboratory experiments carried out and scientists were satisfied that the chemical would not pass through the placental barrier during pregnancy and it was licensed and marketed in Britain from April 1958 by drug manufacturer Distillers Biochemicals Ltd under the brand names of Distaval, Asmaval, Distaval Forte and Tensival depending on the symptom they were treating e.g. asthma or tension.
It was three years later that Australian doctor William McBride told the Lancet he had noticed an unprecedented increase in the number of deformed babies being born in his hospital and he discovered the common factor was the ingestion of Thalidomide during pregnancy.
The link between Thalidomide and the deformities was officially made in November 1961 and the drug was withdrawn in December 1961 but by then over 10,000 babies in 46 countries had been born with extensive deformities and less than half that number survived. In the UK of the 2,000 born, only 466 Thalidomide children survived.
The extent of the condition varied but it usually involved stunted and misshapen limbs or phocomelia (the name given to the flipper like appearance of the limbs) and sometimes brain, hearing or sight damage.
It was discovered that Thalidomide restricted the growth of blood vessels and because morning sickness is generally much worse in the first three months of pregnancy i.e. at a time when foetal development is at its height, the effect of the drug prohibited foetal growth.
In 1962, the UK parents of sufferers formed the Thalidomide Society and they quickly gathered public support and recognition for the suffering that had been caused.
The tragedy also resulted in more stringent rules and controls being put in place to regulate the licensing of drugs culminating in the Medicines Act 1968.
The first compensation awards were paid out in 1968 by Distillers and five years later the Thalidomide Trust was set up to administer additional payments made by Distillers and the UK government.
However, the story of Thalidomide does not end there and may eventually see a happier ending; following a discovery virtually by accident in 1964 when Doctor Jacob Sheskin of the Hansen Leper Hospital in Jerusalem gave a patient, who was suffering from extensive skin problems linked to leprosy, a dose of Thalidomide, the patient was able to sleep and showed signs of improvement.
Clinical trials started soon after this and the World Health Organisation authorised further clinical trials in 1967. Following American studies, the FDA approved Thalidomide to control the effects of erythema nodosum leprosum (ENL) in 1998.
In the UK, the Mcmillan Cancer Support organisation now promotes the drug as giving relief to myeloma sufferers. Their website states Thalidomide has been licensed to be given with melphalan (a chemotherapy drug) and prednisolone (a steroid) along with other chemotherapy drugs. However, their statement that “How Thalidomide works in the treatment of cancer is not fully understood” might ring alarm bells in some minds, but given the successes so far recorded, it might be a risk worth taking.
The mechanics of Thalidomide, whilst immensely destructive to a developing foetus, are proving to help stop the spread of cancer.
A cancer needs to produce a network of new blood vessels in order to transport cancer agents, so by prohibiting the growth of these vessels, the cancer is stopped. In the UK, the drug is now being used to treat brain and kidney cancer and Kaposi’s sarcoma as well as the symptoms of AIDS/HIV.
However, whilst there is now some hope that Thalidomide will at last be able to help patients, with the continuing uncertain future for the surviving victims of the Thalidomide scandal, Mike O’Brien, Minister of Health along with Guinness who bought out Distillers, not only agreed to a £20m package that will continue until 2037, but also expressed the government’s regret and sympathy, something that campaigners had been waiting to hear for decades.
Sufferers are keen to point out they want to be part of society and not ostracised; Thalidomide writer and composer Mat Fraser wrote ‘Thalidomide!! A Musical’ that tells the story of an able bodied person falling in love with a sufferer and with the December 2011 release of William Burton from a Philippine jail for drug smuggling, it would seem they are certainly not letting their disability stop them.
There can be few manmade atrocities that cause such extensive and horrific injury, let’s just hope we have learnt a lesson.
The Thalidomide Trust www.thalidomide.org.uk.
The Thalidomide Society www.thalidomidesociety.co.uk.