Thalidomide Catastrophe: One Of The Darkest Episodes In Science

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There are no qualms in accepting the fact that science has led to a lot of remarkable developments in all walks of life. With the advancement in technology, the world has shrunk and we can now connect with people across oceans easily with the help of audio and video calling. Travelling to far-flung corners of the world has become a matter of days now due to airplanes. Medical science has excelled and diseases considered deadly once can now not only be cured but prevented with immunization provided by vaccinations for hepatitis, measles, mumps and so on. Science has also helped in increasing agricultural yields by preventing the spread of pests. With the aid of genetic modification, it is now possible to produce different types of crops to satisfy global food requirements.

But, as the saying goes, every rose has its thorns. Scientific development, too, has seen its fair share of catastrophe.

Once considered a ‘wonder drug’, thalidomide caused a lot of damage

Rapid urbanization and industrialization due to advancement in technology have had devastating effects on the environment due to release of toxic waste materials.

Children affected by Thalidomide (Source: Flickr)

Similarly, medical science also has a dark side. With the wrong medicine or dosage, the existing condition of the patient can deteriorate pretty fast. One such sombre example in the history of medicine is the drug, thalidomide. Once considered a ‘wonder drug’, thalidomide caused a lot of damage as it became a reason of birth defects in multiple babies.

A German pharmaceutical company, Chemie Grünenthal released Thalidomide in 1953 which was discovered by Wilhelm Kunz.  The drug was marketed to different countries with different brand names and became one of the world’s largest selling drugs due to heavy promotion and was labelled as completely safe.

over 10,000 children were born with thalidomide related disabilities worldwide within the few years when it was first marketed

Initially, it was released as a non-addictive and non-barbiturate sedative: a tranquilizer to promote calmness and induce sleep. Then, due to discovery of its anti-emetic effects, it became the drug of choice to treat morning sickness in pregnant women. Later, it proved to be one of the biggest disasters in the history of medical science.

Reports about side effects including neuropathies (dysfunction of nerves, represented by cramps, muscle weakness, and loss of motor coordination) were received by the company in 1958. In 1961, other additional effects such as constipation, dizziness, hangover sensation, and memory loss were also reported. However, the most catastrophic outcome of the drug was reported by the Australian doctor, William McBride, who wrote about the increased number of deformed babies being born at his hospital—all to mothers who had taken thalidomide during pregnancy. He wrote a letter to the Lancet, a medical journal, about his observation of multiple severe abnormalities in babies. After the confirmation of these side effects by European researchers, the drug was withdrawn from market.

Clinical trials had been conducted on non-pregnant rats prior to its release and not on pregnant ones

But over 10,000 children were born with thalidomide related disabilities worldwide within the few years when it was first marketed. Phocomelia, the absence of limbs with hands or feet usually attached like flippers, was one of the most common birth defects. Radial aplasia, the absence of lower bone in the arm and limb, was also common. Facial malformations including ear and eye defects were also very common in thalidomide exposed babies. Another dreadful feature was cleft lip and palate. Apart from these teratogenicities—birth defects caused by a teratogen such as a drug—other congenital diseases such as heart defects, malformed kidneys and urinary system, and reproductive and gastrointestinal malformations were also observed in these children.

Clinical trials had been conducted on non-pregnant rats prior to its release and not on pregnant ones. So, the fact that the drug could cross the placenta and reach the foetus was completely unknown. Later, it was found that thalidomide crosses the placenta and in doing so, affects the embryonic blood vessels growth. Thus, it contributes to the malformations as blood vessels are essential for normal embryonic development and vessel loss or disruption can result in birth defects.

After 50 years of its release the German company, the creator of thalidomide, issued an apology for the impact of drug on babies. But the affected victims of the drug had and still have been suffering from physical hardship and emotional stress since they were born.

Today, there are fewer than 3000 people left who have endured the mental, emotional, and physical pain inflicted by this gruesome scientific invention. For the survivors, decades of coping without limbs or with deformed and twisted hands or feet meant great wear and tear on the remaining muscles and joints. This has led to premature arthritis and chronic pain.

Mandy Master, one of thalidomide victims born without hands, now 51, states:

I’m struggling with my joints. My legs are doing two jobs, not only for walking but are also used as arms. It is very tiring now. I walk for five minutes now and I’m in absolute agony. I am struggling.

Another thalidomide affected survivor, Adams Spink said,

These (thalidomide survivors) are people who might be inside bodies which are 50 years old but in fact in terms of our actual age, the age of our muscular-skeletal systems, we’re probably 20 years ahead of that.

Thalidomide is an example of a scientific invention with dreadful consequences. The incident emphasizes the need to conduct extensive research prior to the release of a new drug, as failing to do so demonstrably results in suffering and distress for many innocent lives.

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