The "children of thalidomide" in Billy Joel's song "We Didn't Start the Fire" were 10,000 babies born with shortened arms and legs or without any limbs at all. Their mothers had taken the drug thalidomide early in their pregnancies to help them sleep and to keep them from feeling nauseated.

Of the 10,000 babies with "seal-like" limbs, only seventeen were born in the United States. The number was low because Dr. Frances Kelsey blocked the sale of the drug in this country.

Now, some thirty years later, thalidomide has resurfaced. Doctors are investigating its potential as a treatment for a variety of diseases.

A drug company in Germany developed thalidomide in the 1950s as a sleeping pill. Sales boomed because the drug was cheap, seemed to be safe even when taken in large quantities, and apparently caused no harm to experimental animals. The company wanted to sell thalidomide in the United States. So, in 1960, the company applied to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval, because the safety of all drugs must be reviewed by this agency before they can be sold in the United States.

Given thalidomide's popularity in Europe, FDA officials thought that approval for the drug would be simple and straightforward. They gave the folder on thalidomide to Dr. Kelsey -- their newest medical reviewer -- expecting approval to be routine.

From the start, Kelsey refused to be hurried into approving the sale of thalidomide. She felt strongly that, even though the drug was in use all over Europe, too little information was known about its side effects. Kelsey found it peculiar that the drug affected experimental animals differently from humans. While thalidomide had no reported harmful effects on the animals, it also did not have the beneficial effect of making them sleepy.

Refusing to take "no" for an answer and eager to sell their product, the drug manufacturers pressured Kelsey, but she stood her ground. She would not give thalidomide her stamp of approval until she had better proof of its safety.

Then, in February 1961, Kelsey read in the British Medical Journal that thalidomide could have harmful effects. A British physician reported that long-term use of thalidomide caused tingling, numbness,and burning pain in the fingers and toes, and he speculated that thalidomide damaged nerves in those parts of the body.

For Kelsey, this report raised a red flag. She suspected that a drug that damaged nerves could have wide-ranging effects on a developing fetus. In graduate school, Kelsey had been intrigued by teratogens, drugs that harm the fetus, and she suspected that thalidomide was one of them.

In November 1961, a German doctor reported that thalidomide caused birth defects, and the drug was taken off the German market. Soon after, the drug manufacturers formally withdrew their application for approval in the United States.

On July 15, 1962, a reporter celebrated Kelsey on the front page of the Washington Post as the "heroine...[whose] skepticism and stubbornness...prevented what could have been an appalling American tragedy, the birth of hundreds or indeed thousands of armless and legless children (1)."

Just a few American women gave birth to "thalidomide babies;" they were the ones who had taken the drug while participating in investigational studies or had gotten it in other countries.

Kelsey receives the Gold Medal
for Distinguished Civilian Service
from President Kennedy in 1962.
Courtesy of the National
Library of Medicine.

As the gatekeeper who had prevented thalidomide's widespread distribution, Kelsey received the highest award for federal civilian service from President Kennedy. A New York Times front-page article on August 5, 1962 praised Kelsey for leading "a two-year battle with the makers of thalidomide (2)."

Thalidomide was not completely shelved after the 1960s tragedy. In 1965, an Israeli doctor used it to treat a patient who had leprosy. He had given the man a drug to fight the bacteria that cause the disease. The drug induced an extremely uncomfortable inflammatory reaction. To ease the patient's discomfort and help him sleep, the doctor then gave him thalidomide. The patient slept well and, in addition, thalidomide brought the inflammation under control. This second effect was "dumb luck or pure serendipity," says Dr. Lawrence Fox, who is now studying some of thalidomide's other effects. The Israeli observation led doctors to begin studying thalidomide's use in treating inflammatory diseases.

Today, stories about new uses for thalidomide are springing up in magazines and newspapers, because more patients than ever are receiving the drug in investigational studies, says Dr. Deborah Birnkrant of the FDA. "Thalidomide Returns, Now to Treat AIDS," a recent headline in the Boston Globe announced (3). "Oldest Horrors of Thalidomide Give Way to New Medical Hopes" reads a headline in the New York Times (4).

Scientists are beginning to understand better how thalidomide works in the body. And, as they learn more about what parts of the body and what biological processes are affected by thalidomide, they can test the drug as a treatment for other diseases and conditions. Birnkrant cautions that there is still "no place in a medicine cabinet for thalidomide unless a patient has a serious, life-threatening, or unresponsive condition, where the physician, the FDA, and the patient agree that the benefits of thalidomide outweigh the risks."

In particular, doctors believe the drug may be beneficial for treating illnesses that involve inflammations, the painful conditions in which tissues are damaged, get red and hot, and swell up. For example, thalidomide seems to help patients who suffer from arthritis, an inflammation of the joints. Fox discovered that thalidomide heals mouth and throat sores in people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS (5). These sores make eating extremely painful, and, when patients cannot eat, they become thin, frail, and even more vulnerable to infection.

Fox, like Birnkrant, cautions that thalidomide must only be "administered by a physician who is vigilant for the possible serious side effects." Thalidomide irreversibly damages nerves in the fingers and toes. Such damage can be extremely painful and can lead to problems with muscle control, such as difficulty walking. One patient described feeling as though his foot were sealed in a metal shoe. In addition, because the drug is unquestionably teratogenic, doctors carefully monitor women of child-bearing age who are involved in research studies and caution them not to become pregnant during the study period.

The story of a doctor accidentally finding that a drug has unexpected benefits is fairly common, says Dr. John Decker, an emeritus scientist at NIH who formerly directed its research hospital. Decker cites the example of a doctor in Paris who injected his patient with gold in the early 1900s to treat tuberculosis. The patient also had arthritis. Unexpectedly, the gold injections reduced the swelling and redness in the patient's joints. Gold injections later became a standard treatment for arthritis. Today, doctors still use gold, although in a more refined form, to treat arthritis.

Billy Joel inadvertently made an accurate prediction when he sang of thalidomide in "We Didn't Start the Fire:" today, doctors are using thalidomide to extinguish the flames of discomfort in patients who have inflammation -- a word that means "setting on fire."

1. Washington Post, July 15, 1962.
2. New York Times, August 5, 1962.
3. Boston Globe, May 22, 1997.
4. New York Times, December 28, 1995.
5. New England Journal of Medicine, May 22, 1997, 336(21): 1487-1493.
6. Chemically Induced Birth Defects, James L. Schardein (Marcel Dekker, Inc., NY: 1985).
7. Drugs as Teratogens, James L. Schardein (CRC Press, Cleveland: 1976).
8. Teratogens: Chemicals Which Cause Birth Defects, Vera M. Kolb, Ed. (Elsevier, Amsterdam: 1993).
9. Clio Medica 1976, 11(2): 79-93.