Thalidomide curse 'may go on down generations'

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The Independent Online
The theory that the morning-sickness drug thalidomide is a human mutagen whose horrors - babies born with no arms and no legs - can be passed from one generation to the next has received new backing.

Two scientific papers, one to be published this week, show that in two animal species, rats and rabbits, thalidomide jumped the generation barrier, the first drug in history to do so.

The implications are that the trauma of thalidomide, which damaged some 8,000 babies around the world in the Fifties, could be with us forever. It also means that the system for testing all drugs should be revised to take into account the possibility that they could be mutagens.

Two years ago, two Australians, Dr Peter Huang, a molecular pathologist, and Dr William McBride, the doctor who made the link between thalidomide and deformed births, told a Dublin conference they suspected that thalidomide bound to the DNA in animals and interfered in cell replication.

This was only a theory and was widely rejected. Dr Huang and Dr McBride finished their experiment with rats and recently submitted a paper, "Interaction of Thalidomide with Rat Embryonic DNA in Vivo", to a respected publication Teratogenesis, Carcinogenesis and Mutagenesis edited by Philippe Shubik, of Green College, Oxford. It is sure to cause a sensation in medical and pharmacological circles.

Dr Huang said yesterday: "We have demonstrated for the first time the mechanism of thalidomide and the way in which it produces deformities. In brief, thalidomide definitely binds to the DNA and interferes with cell replication."

A second paper, on similar experiments on rabbits in the US, due out later this year, will show much the same result.

Dr McBride, who has always argued that the thalidomide tragedy was worse than anyone appreciated, wrote to the British Medical Journal in June 1994 drawing attention to the birth of two malformed children in Britain whose fathers were original thalidomide victims.

Critics argued that the malformations of these children were not typical of thalidomide or that their fathers had been misdiagnosed as thalidomide victims. But then an Italian professor five months later announced that he too had seen a child with thalidomide-type deformities born to an original thalidomide victim. Stimulated by this, and their rejection in Dublin, Dr Huang and Dr McBride stepped up their studies of thalidomide in rats.