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Thalidomide: From Medical Disaster to Cancer Treatment

In the late1950s and early ‘60s, the drug Thalidomide was prescribed to combat morning sickness (among other things) except in the US, where the FDA didn’t trust the safety repots. That mistrust was arranged, as many women who took the drug miscarried, or gave birth to children with a variety of birth defects. After a few years, Thalidomide was recalled and the very name became synonymous with the tragic consequences of inadequate drug testing. But outside of the headlines, a strange thing happened: medicine began to find new uses for the discredited drug.

In 1964, Israeli doctor Jacob Sheskin had patients with harsh leprosy symptoms involving painful lesions. While looking for any possible drug available, he came upon thalidomide in his office’s apothecary. He gave it to the patient, and it worked almost immediately: the lesions practically disappeared overnight.

Doctors began using it for other illnesses that seemed biochemically related, and found another astonishing effect: it elongated the lives of people with bone and blood cancers. In 1999, Dr. Bart Barlogie of the University of Arizona studied 84 patients who took the drug: a third of the patients improved while two went completely into remission. More studies about how this worked followed in 2010, by which time thalidomide was once again seen as a drug with much potential.

More research pinpointed the mechanism that Thalidomide uses to target cancer cells, and it is used more widely for a variety of cancers. Read about this new direction in cancer treatment at Atlas Obscura. 

(Image credit: Stephencdickson)


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