Experts doubt claims that thalidomide can be inherited

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One of the world's worst medical disasters, caused by the drug thalidomide, may not be over yet, a pressure group said yesterday.

Claims by the Thalidomide Action Group that the damaging effects of the drug could be passed on to children were dismissed by British experts.

Eleven malformed babies have been born to victims of the original thalidomide tragedy fuelling speculation that the disaster would continue to affect future generations.

Thalidomide was given to pregnant women in Britain, Australia and Germany during the 1960s as a treatment for morning sickness and caused thousands of deformities.

Yesterday, the Thalidomide Action Group released the results of research on rats by Dr William McBride, the Australian doctor who revealed the dangers of the drug in the 1960s, which claims to show that thalidomide binds to DNA in egg and sperm cells. The research is published in the Oxford journal Teratogenesis, Carcinogenesis and Mutatogenesis.

Dr McBride has devoted much of his career to showing that the scale of the thalidomide tragedy is greater than anyone has realised. But his reputation was tainted after he was found to have falsified data in another project and struck off the Australian medical register.

British specialists say it is impossible for a drug to cause a malformation which is then passed on to subsequent generations. Tests on thalidomide to see whether it has mutagenic potential have proved universally negative. Neil Buckland, director of the Thalidomide trust, the charity for the victims, said: "The specialists are convinced it cannot happen."

The most likely explanation for the high proportion of malformed babies born to thalidomide victims is that the parents were misdiagnosed. Distinguishing deformities caused by thalidomide from those with other causes is extremely difficult.

At the time of the disaster some children in whom the diagnosis was unclear were given the benefit of the doubt so that they qualified for compensation. Specialists who examined them at the time always warned that some would turn out to have hereditary defects not linked with thalidomide and that these would emerge later in their children.