Thalidomide used to treat cancer


Thalidomide, the drug, which caused appalling birth defects in thousands of children in the 1960s, is being used to treat lung cancer, scientists revealed today.

A trial of the notorious drug in 30 British patients with inoperable lung cancer is under way after it was shown to help shrink tumours and prevent the disease from returning.

Scientists hope that if the trial is successful, thalidomide could be used to treat other forms of cancer.

Thalidomide was launched in 1958 and was used to treat morning sickness in pregnant women.

Made by drug giant Distillers, it became hugely popular as it also worked as a mild sedative, which could not be overdosed on.

Hundreds of thousands of women world-wide were prescribed the drug but it was later found to cause horrific defects in unborn children, with babies born with missing arms and legs.

About 10,000 children world-wide were affected by thalidomide and the drug was withdrawn from the UK in 1961. More than 400 thalidomide victims are alive in the UK today, with a further 5,000 in other countries.

After a long campaign by victims and their families a multi-million pound compensation package was set up by the drugs company.

Now scientists have found that thalidomide has 'extraordinary' properties which can help to treat cancer.

The very properties which caused the birth defects can help to shrink tumours.

Thalidomide blocks blood vessels and limits blood flow, which is why babies were left with missing limbs.

But in the same way the drug can stop the growth of blood vessels that feed cancerous tumours with oxygen.

It can also stabilise blood flow which tends to pulse and be chaotic around tumours.

Stabilising the blood flow enhances the delivery of chemotherapy treatment to the tumour, helping to destroy it.

The drug also seems to help after chemotherapy treatment by preventing the return of cancer.

Funded by the Cancer Research Campaign, scientists are testing the drug on volunteers from UCL/Middlesex Hospital and Guy's Hospital in London.

Experts want to recruit more volunteers for a second phase of the trial and hope to have more results in 18 months.

But patients taking the drug are already experiencing the benefits.

Margaret Edwards, from Stevenage in Hertfordshire, was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer with secondary tumours in the brain last September.

The 52-year-old mother of three, with two grandchildren was told it was too late to operate and volunteered for the trial.

She takes one thalidomide tablet every night and will continue to do so for the next two years after undergoing a course of six chemotherapy sessions.

She said: 'I had no qualms about taking the drug because all my questions were answered and answered satisfactorily.

As far as I can tell the drug hasn't given me any problems at all.'

Thalidomide is not licensed in the UK and supplies for the trial are being made by a Welsh pharmaceutical company.

Vivien Kerr, a co-ordinator for the Thalidomide Society said: 'Some people who have been affected by thalidomide think it should never ever be used again because they know the appalling effects it can have.

'But I think the majority would say that if a drug like thalidomide which has had such appalling side-effects can be of benefit and save lives, then as long as it is very, very carefully tested and monitored, at least some good is coming out of it.'

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