Thalidomide--a regret of the past, but a hope for the future?
Ellis Muggleton examines the chequered history of one of this century's most controversial drugs
As most readers will know, thalidomide is a drug whose reputation is tarnished, and quite rightly so, by its use in the 1960s to treat morning sickness in pregnant women. It has been discovered, however, that thalidomide has other therapeutic benefits that cannot be offered by other drugs and that produce a similar effect without such devastating adverse effects.
Thalidomide is a synthetic molecule that was first discovered by accident in Germany during 1954. Wilhelm Kunz, a pharmacist working for Chemie Grünenthal, synthesised organic compounds in the hope of finding new drugs, and one of the molecules he produced was thalidomide. This was a drug of a novel chemical class.
Two isomers of this molecule exist; laevo-thalidomide and dextro-thalidomide. One is the mirror image of the other. The drug manufactured was a mixture of the two, but the body only responds to the laevo-thalidomide, and dextro-thalidomide is discarded without causing