Thalidomide: Just the name of the drug conjures up horrific images of children born with flippers instead of arms.
The drug was widely used in Canada, England and West Germany nearly four decades ago as a sedative and to combat nausea. But it was found to cause serious birth defects if ingested during pregnancy.
For that and other reasons, the drug was never licensed in the United States. But that may be about to change. In recent years, researchers have found what they believe are significant therapeutic uses for the drug, particularly against the complications of life-threatening ailments such as AIDS and cancer.
Today and Friday, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel plans to meet to talk about the problems and the promise of thalidomide.
Researchers have found the drug useful against certain AIDS related conditions, such as painful mouth ulcers, known as aphthous ulcers, and severe body wasting. Some AIDS researchers also are studying its effect on production of the human immunodeficiency virus in the body.
It also has showed promise in treating glaucoma, lupus and a chronic rejection state that can be deadly in bone marrow transplantation.
Furthermore, thalidomide has been used abroad for years in treating leprosy in Mexico, the Philippines, South America and Asia. Scientists believe the drug eventually also could have an impact on Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.
Thalidomide first became available in 1958 overseas, and was touted as an extremely safe “miracle” drug because it induced a quick calm sleep without hangover-like side effects. It also appeared to relieve nausea in pregnant women.
But then, in 1959 and in 1960 in West Germany and England, thousands of infants began being born with gross deformities, most often shortened limbs that resembled flippers.