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.

More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation NQ+

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...


Highly Attractive Pakage: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - A highly attractive oppor...

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?