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   Inside Out - South West: Monday January 31, 2005

THE RETURN OF THALIDOMIDE

Garry Edlin
Thalidomide has helped save Garry's life

Garry Edlin owes his life to a drug with a chilling past. When given only a few weeks to live, and when all other treatments had failed, Garry was prescribed Thalidomide.

Garry suffers from Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a rare and incurable cancer. Taking Thalidomide, Garry says, was almost 'miraculous'.

At first his GP thought it was blocked saliva glands, but five weeks later, the lumps had developed into the size of a grapefruit. Garry was diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphoma.

Within days the huge cancerous growths in his neck had shrunk to next to nothing. Now two years on, Garry is still combating his cancer with this highly contentious drug.

Thalidomide's notorious past

Thalidomide was first introduced in the 1950s as a sedative. Because it was deemed to be so safe, it was prescribed to pregnant women to combat the nausea and insomnia associated with morning sickness.

Women who took the drug in early pregnancy gave birth to children with severe birth defects such as missing or shortened limbs.

Approximately 40% of those children died within a year of their birth. Survivors face life with major physical challenges.

Shortly after the link between Thalidomide and birth defects was proven it was banned from use world-wide.

Drug testing

Cells
Thalidomide put the spotlight on how drugs were tested for safety

Thalidomide was responsible for changing the way drugs are tested and released for general medical use.

The drug was widely distributed and prescribed in the 1950s and early 1960s.

When it was later proven to be so dangerous to pregnant women, people asked why it was made available in the first place.

Thalidomide had passed safety tests performed on animals. In some tests, dosages of over 600 times the normal human dosage had no effect at all on rodents.

On further investigation it was found that more extensive tests into the drug had not been carried out.

The return of Thalidomide

Thalidomide had been sold throughout the world before the effects the drug could have on unborn babies was known.

After its withdrawal from the market supplies could still be found in some developing countries.

In 1964, Dr. Jacob Sheskin, a doctor in Jerusalem used Thalidomide to provide some relief to a patient with leprosy.

The doctor thought that the drug would act as a sedative and help the patient to sleep.

Side effects of thalidomide

They include:

  • sleepiness
  • drowsiness
  • constipation
  • skin rash
  • severe headaches
  • stomach aches
  • peripheral neuropathy (numbness and pain in your arms, hands, legs and feet)
  • dizziness and nausea
  • giddiness or nervousness at higher doses
  • shivering and buzzing in the ears
  • depression or mood-swings
  • a general sense of illness
  • severe birth defects if taken even once during pregnancy

Immediately, some side-effects of using the sedative became apparent.

This time the effects were extremely positive. Within three days the leprosy had gone and skin lesions healed.

When the patient stopped taking the Thalidomide the leprosy returned.

It seemed that Thalidomide would act as a suppresser, throwing the disease into retreat, although it could not actually eradicate the illness entirely from the patient.

Since then, Thalidomide has been successfully used to treat people with AIDS and bone cancer

Garry's story

Garry Edling was 39, when in 1996 he was diagnosed as having Mantle Cell Lymphoma.

He underwent five bouts of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant in an attempt to beat the disease.

By 2002 he could hardly walk, sleep or eat - the treatments had failed. Doctors told him that in a few weeks the cancer would kill him.

But then Garry's new consultant, Dr. Simon Rule, suggested a new treatment - Thalidomide.

Dr. Rule's motivations were similar to Dr. Sheskin's (the doctor who had used Thalidomide to treat leprosy). Dr Rule says,

"I was hoping that I would improve his symptoms - make him feel better - because we had really run out of every chemotherapy there was.

And the fantastic side effect was that his disease disappeared - I didn't expect that at all."

Dr Rule
"His response is nothing short of remarkable."
Dr. Rule on the effect of Thalidomide on Garry's cancer

Garry is not immune to the other side effects of the drug though.

But then the tumours stopped growing and started shrinking. Garry says,

"Within 10 days these huge lumps had gone - it's like a miracle cure"

Garry is not immune to other side effects of the drug though.

His hands and feet have become numb and are prone to locking up, so he finds it difficult to move them.

He suffers from a lot of muscular pain. However although this is less than ideal, it keeps his killer disease at bay.

UK trials

Arm being injected
Garry is now part of a clinical trial looking at how Thalidomide works

Because Thalidomide is still an unlicensed drug in this country and must be prescribed with the utmost caution, the drug can only be obtained under strict control.

Garry is one of a handful of patients who receive the drug as part of an informal trial being conducted by Dr. Rule and a team from Derriford Hospital.

The team is hoping to undertake a national trial shortly to test the potential of using Thalidomide to treat Mantle Cell Lymphoma.

See also ...

On bbc.co.uk
Thalidomide

On the rest of the web
Mantle Cell Lymphoma
Thalidomide factsheet
Thalidomide (wikipedia)
Derriford Hospital
Thalidomide UK

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Christine Garrett
My husband has myelodysplasia and is being treated with Thalidomide under the supervision of Prof. Mufti of Kings College Hospital in London. I would be interested to hear from anyone who also has received this treatment for this condition.

Richard Wyman
In the last month I have unfortunately been diagnosed with a non-operable pancreatic tumour. This segment of the programme was therefore of great interest, as only today I have asked my GP to inform the Royal Cornwall Hospital that I would be very interested in entering into any drug or therapy trials that may offer some benefit to me.

Peter Cholwill
I am currently on chemotherapy for a cancer lump in my mouth. The doctors at Derriford are trying everything possible but nothing has worked as yet. It is getting very difficult to eat, talk and breathing is getting difficult. I am off to Derriford tomorrow for a consaltation I will enquire about Dr. Rule. But would you be so kind to send me a contact number or an address for Dr. Rule. I would really like to get in touch with him, possibly to try this treatment.



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