Science: It destroyed limbs, can it save lives?: Thalidomide, already used to treat leprosy, may help to combat Aids, says John Emsley

IN JULY, Debbie Harrison of Crowland, Lincolnshire, gave birth to a girl. Sadly, her limbs were deformed like those of her father, Glen, one of thousands of 'thalidomide babies' born throughout the world in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Could the thalidomide Glen's mother took 35 years ago for morning sickness have been responsible for her granddaughter's deformities? The answer is no: you cannot pass on a birth defect caused by an outside agent.

Although thalidomide is no longer prescribed in Britain, it is still used in the Third World to treat leprosy. But it may soon return to Britain in the fight against Aids. A group of doctors, led by Professor Angus Dalgleish at St George's Hospital Medical School, London, has sought permission to begin trials on 40 male volunteers who are HIV-positive.

Thalidomide was banned in Britain in 1961 after about 460 babies were born with malformed and tiny limbs. Each family received pounds 60,000 compensation - about pounds 500,000 today - from the UK distributor, Distillers. If thalidomide were introduced now, there would be no risk of malformed babies as chemical advances would ensure it was safe.

Chemie Gruenenthal, the German company that developed thalidomide in the Fifties, tested it as a sedative and found it was safer than the antidepressants then available. Massive doses were not lethal - an adult could take up to 350gm (12oz). What the company failed to realise was that while half the thalidomide molecules were safe, the other half contained a poison.

Both forms have the chemical formula C13 H10 O4 N2 , and consist of the same groups of interlinked rings of atoms. But each molecule is the mirror image of the other. Just as there are left and right pairs of hands, so there are pairs of many molecules, among them thalidomide. Chemists label them not left or right but S (from the Latin sinister) or R (rectus).

R-thalidomide is fine, but the S form taken on certain days of pregnancy interferes with the replicating DNA and deforms the foetus. As it was manufactured, thalidomide consisted of R and S molecules in equal numbers. Now, chemists can separate them easily for a variety of R and S pairs; indeed, all new pharmaceuticals must now be tested in both versions.

In 1958 thalidomide was launched in Germany, as Contergan, by Gruenenthal, which felt it safe enough to be sold without prescription. Within a few years the drug was available in more than 40 countries. The liquid form was known as Germany's best babysitter, as it was superb for sending children to sleep. 'Completely harmless, even for infants,' said the leaflet. There were side-

effects, such as constipation, lowered blood pressure and dizziness, but these are to be expected with any drug.

In Britain, the drug, called Distaval, was often given to control morning sickness. Its UK patent made no reference to the fact that it was a mixture of two forms.

Today thalidomide is manufactured in Brazil using the original recipe and is used to treat leprosy. It is still not purified into the two forms, but if it is not taken by pregnant women, there is no risk.

Sir Colin Berry, professor of morbid anatomy at the Royal London Hospital, says: 'Thalidomide minimises the adverse effects that can follow any treatment which involves destroying bacteria in large numbers, and this is what happens in leprosy.' Thalidomide may also be useful in treating inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, and even preventing the rejection of organ transplants, as it suppresses the immune system.

It was while investigating thalidomide's anti-inflammatory action that Dr Gilla Kaplan, at Rockerfeller University, New York City, discovered it blocked an agent that cells produce when infected with toxins. This agent, a protein, is responsible for fevers, aches and inflammation. It is also used by HIV to reproduce itself in other cells - and, as thalidomide reduces the agent's activity, it thereby delays the onset of Aids.

The author is science writer in residence at the Department of Chemistry, Imperial College, London.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Women protest at the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh
tvReview: It's a tough watch, but the details of the brutal gang rape and murder of medical student need to be shared if we want to strive for global gender equality
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
health
News
people
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
News
people
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
Jeffrey Archer holds up a copy of 'Kane and Abel', a book he says was ripped-off by Bollywood
books
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Salesforce / Reports / CRM - North London - NfP

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and reputable Not for Profit o...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers