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The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"It seems increasingly likely that thalidomide will be used as a force for good"
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Dr Richard Sullivan, of the Cancer Research Campaign
"Out of all this tragedy we could get some good"
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Thursday, 25 January, 2001, 22:11 GMT
Thalidomide is 'cancer weapon'
Thalidomide is making a comeback
The controversial drug Thalidomide is being used to help treat the most deadly form of lung cancer.

The drug became notorious in the 1960s when it was prescribed to pregnant women to ease morning sickness.

It was found to cause severe birth defects by limiting the blood flow to developing limbs. Many children were born limbless or with severely shortened limbs.

It would be particularly heartening if Thalidomide - a drug which has tragic associations - could become a new weapon against this disease

Professor Gordon McVie
Now scientists hope to use the blood limiting properties to help small cell lung cancer patients by starving the blood supply to tumours.

Researchers are already using Thalidomide in drugs trials to treat Kaposi's sarcoma (a type of cancer involving blood vessels in the skin) and brain cancer.

And the world's first patient trial has been launched using a drug combination of Thalidomide and chemotherapy.

The trial will involve 20 lung cancer patients from London and Leeds, who have volunteered to test the treatment.

Dr Siow Ming Lee, a Cancer Research Campaign supported scientist, from University College London and The Middlesex Hospital, believes the new combination of Thalidomide and chemotherapy will not only stop new tumour blood vessel growth but may also stabilise existing vessels.

Beating tumours

Dr Siow Ming Lee
Dr Siow Ming Lee is supervising treatment
This will help doctors treat the tumour by helping maintain a constant blood flow to the tumour, allowing the chemotherapy to work more effectively and kill more tumour cells at the heart of the cancer.

Dr Lee said the new trial is vital because the current treatments for this form of lung cancer are poor.

"Existing treatments for small cell lung cancer remain unsatisfactory and clearly finding new and exciting ways to improve the treatment of this disease is vitally important," said Dr Lee.

Another positive side effect of the new treatment is that Thalidomide seems to stimulate weight gain, which improves the quality of life of patients.

In 1996 small cell lung cancer was responsible for 9,000 deaths in the UK and although those undergoing traditional chemotherapy have a high remission rate survival rates are low.

Professor Gordon McVie, the Director General of the Cancer Research Campaign, which is backing the trial, said they were very excited by the opportunities offered by the drug combination.

"This is preliminary work and highly speculative. It is very early days, but we are excited by the potential of this research into improved treatments for small cell lung cancer.

"It would be particularly heartening if Thalidomide - a drug which has tragic associations - could become a new weapon against this disease," he said.

'Properly monitored'

Vivien Lerr, of the Thalidomide Society, said they would have no problems with the drug being used in this way provided it is properly monitored.

"As long as the guidelines are there and they are followed very very closely and someone's progress on Thalidomide is very closely monitored by the doctors we would not stand in its way," she said.

But Thalidomide UK condemned the use of the drug and called for guidelines to be legally enforced.

The survivors' organisation will publish a report into the dangers of the drug in March.

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See also:

25 Jan 01 | Health
'My hope for Thalidomide cure'
28 Dec 00 | Scotland
Lung cancer victims 'to blame'
28 Nov 00 | Health
Nicotine linked to lung cancer
25 Sep 00 | Scotland
Lung cancer tops women death table
02 Aug 00 | Health
UK lung cancer deaths halved
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