The controversial drug thalidomide can slow down the progress of a wasting disease in patients with pancreatic cancer, a study has shown.
The drug was withdrawn from use in 1961
Severe wasting, called cachexia, is the direct cause of death in one in five patients with advanced cancer.
The Southampton University study, published in Gut, showed those taking the drug gained some weight, then lost less than those in the non-drug group.
Thalidomide is also being investigated as a treatment in around 100 illnesses.
It has also been shown that the drug can reduce the wasting typical of Aids and reduce the weight loss seen in patients with TB.
Thalidomide was marketed in the 1950s as a cure for morning sickness.
But it was withdrawn in 1961 after around 10,000 babies had been born with disabilities such as the characteristic stunted arms or legs.
Some babies were born with no limbs at all.
This latest study was carried out by scientists from the University of Southampton School of Medicine.
The studied a group of 50 patients who were terminally ill with pancreatic cancer.
All had lost at least 10% of their bodyweight.
Cachexia is caused by metabolic disturbance, which results from a combination of the body's immune response to disease and the cancer's production of a cocktail of powerful chemicals.
The patients were either given 200mg a day of thalidomide or a dummy drug for 24 weeks.
Some patients could not be followed through until the end of the study, either due to death, or because their cancer was too advanced for them to continue.
However, 33 patients could be assessed after four weeks and 20 after eight weeks of treatment.
It was found that after a month, the patients taking thalidomide had gained an average of 0.37 kg of weight while patients on the dummy treatment had lost an average of 2.21 kg.
After eight weeks, patients taking thalidomide had lost 0.06 kg of weight compared with 3.62 kg in the dummy group.
There was no overall difference in survival times between the groups.
Those taking thalidomide only experienced relatively mild side effects, including rashes, daytime sleepiness and constipation.
The researchers say the drug appears to dampen down inflammation in the body, but how it does this is not yet known.
Writing in Gut, the team led by Dr John Gordon, said: "It remains to be seen whether these results can be generalised to all cancers and whether attenuation of weight loss leads to prolonged survival.
"In the future, combination of the thalidomide with nutritional supplements and pharmacological agents may ultimately lead to a better clinical outcome," they suggest.
In an editorial in the journal, Dr Michael Stroud, from Southampton's Institute of Human Nutrition, said: "This appears to show that this fairly cheap oral agent, if kept away from opportunities for causing birth defects, does ameliorate the wasting process and, furthermore, that maintaining better weight grants some benefit in terms of improved physical function."
He added further large scale studies into the potential use of thalidomide should be undertaken "as soon as possible".
Dr Siow Ming Lee, a consultant medical oncologist at The Meyerstein Institute of Oncology in London, who is carrying out research into the use of thalidomide in the treatment of lung cancer, said: "This preliminary finding is very encouraging demonstrating that thalidomide is safe and effective in attenuating severe weight loss."