Thalidomide is an immunotherapy drug

Thalidomide is an immunotherapy drug, which means it is effective by inducing, enhancing, or suppressing an immune response. Thalidomide was first marketed in Germany and it was first used as a sedative. Afterwards it was used against nausea and to combat morning sickness in pregnant women. The sedative was promoted as a ‘wonder drug’ and adverts emphasised the drug’s safety using phrases such as ‘non-toxic’, which caused very little hesitation in prescription and intake of the drug. This ended up causing adverse effects in new born children of mothers who had taken thalidomide.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s children were being born with severe deformities such as the absence of limbs, but these deformities could be much more or much less severe depending on when in the pregnancy the drug was taken. It wasn’t known that Thalidomide was the cause of these deformities
During this time period, the use of medications during pregnancy was not strictly regulated, and drugs were not thoroughly tested for potential harm to the foetus so animal testing of the drug the tests did not include looking at the effects of the drug during pregnancy. At the time of the development of Thalidomide scientists did not think any drug could cross through the placental barrier and harm the developing foetus, despite research being done on the effect of alcohol on unborn children.
The drug only caused harm to the foetus if taken in the first three months of pregnancy and the severity and location of the deformities depended on how many days into the pregnancy the mother was before beginning treatment; thalidomide taken on the 20th day of pregnancy caused central brain damage, day 21 would damage the eyes, day 22 would cause damage to the ears and face, day 24 to the arms, and leg damage would occur if taken up to day 28. After the 42nd day of pregnancy there would be no effect of the baby from thalidomide.
Overall, the exact number of babies effected by thalidomide is unknown. There are around 460 thalidomide sufferers living in the UK currently, with around 10,000 sufferers reported around the world, but about 50% of these sufferers died shortly after birth. By the mid 1950’s thalidomide was reported to be available in 46 countries, but some suggest up to 51 different countries. Between 5000 and 7000 babies with deformed limbs were reported in West Germany, with only about 40% of these babies surviving. In the US the distribution of the drug was much stricter, even so, 17 babies were still born suffering from effects caused by thalidomide.
Thalidomide is racemic and the original drug was made and sold as a mixture of 2 forms. The S form of thalidomide wasn’t therapeutically active like the R form, but was also the cause of the birth defects.
Today, thalidomide is used to treat cancer and is a type of cancer growth blocker. It interferes with chemicals that cells use to signal growth. It also stimulates some of the immune system cells to attack the cancer cells. Thalidomide stops tumours making their own blood vessels that they need in order to grow.

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