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
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own