Thalidomide legacy fears

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The Independent Online

Health Editor

Birth defects inflicted by the drug thalidomide could, in theory, be passed on to the children of the first generation of victims, a scientist has claimed.

Dr William McBride, whose previous work has achieved both world-wide acclaim and condemnation, told a conference in Dublin that he has shown how thalidomide can disrupt DNA, the genetic code of inheritance.

This would explain why a few children born to thalidomide victims had similar physical abnormalities to their parents, Dr McBride said. There are 9 such cases in Britain, according to The Thalidomide Action Group UK, and others in Bolivia, Japan, Germany and Belgium.

Glenn Harrison, 35, who has a two-year-old daughter Georgina with "two stumps for legs and only two fingers on each hand, just like me" said Dr McBride's work was "very, very important."

Mr Harrison, a haulage contractor from Crowland, near Peterborough, added: "When I saw Georgina being born it was like a nightmare. It was history repeating itself. They have got to do something now before more babies are born like this."

Dr McBride and colleague Dr Peter Huang, whose work has been funded by the charity Foundation 41 in Sydney, told the 23rd Annual Conference of the European Teratology Society that they had shown how part of the thalidomide molecule could bind to genetic material in rat embryos, disrupting the genetic code.

Dr McBride said: "If it binds to the DNA it inevitably interferes with the genetic code. We think thalidomide possibly does the same thing in humans. If the cells [coded for by this portion of DNA] are very badly damaged this could result in an absence of limbs or organs. Lesser degrees of genetic damage could result in malformed fingers and toes. If the genetic code of primordial...ovaries or testes is damaged, then some of the offspring of the thalidomide victims would be affected also."

Other scientists greeted Dr McBride's claims with scepticism. Dr Nigel Brown, of the Medical Research Council's embryology unit in London and an expert on malformations caused by drugs, said the ``vast bulk'' of evidence was against thalidomide having any genetic effects.

Neil Buckland, director of the Thalidomide Trust which administers the compensation fund set up in the wake of the tragedy, said he had "no idea" if the new findings would lead to more money for victims.

"Our medical advisers have consistently held the belief that this situation of thalidomide damage cannot be passed on to second generation individuals.We have not seen Dr McBride's published data and until the Thalidomide Trust's medical advisers have an opportunity to look at it and for it to be subsequently considered by the trustees, I think there's nothing that we can say."

However, Freddie Astbury of TAG (UK) said Dr McBride's claim was a much- needed boost to its campaign to win extra compensation for the "second generation." About pounds 60m remains from the original compensation fund for the 458 British victims. The Department of Health said it would view Dr McBride's findings with interest.

Dr McBride, an Australian gynaecologist who first alerted the world to the dangers of thalidomide 34 years ago, was struck off the New South Wales medical register in 1993 for scientific fraud. He had claimed that another drug used in pregnancy, Debendox, also caused birth defects and it was withdrawn. It was subsequently found that laboratory work did support these findings. It was in a letter to the British Medical Journal in1994, Dr McBride first raised the possibility of thalidomide causing genetic damage, based on two British cases in which remarkably similar defects were seen in the son and daughter of two thalidomide victims.