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Friday, 11 August, 2000, 23:20 GMT 00:20 UK
Thalidomide 'cuts cancer trauma'
Bowel cancer poster
Bowel cancer awareness is being raised
The controversial drug thalidomide may be able to reduce the unpleasant side effects of drug therapy for cancer.

The discovery adds to a growing body of evidence that could see a complete rehabilitation of one of the most notorious drugs in medical history.

Scientists have used the drug successfully to almost eliminate the nausea and diarrhoea associated with chemotherapy for colonic and rectal cancer.

Thalidomide was originally marketed in the 1950s and 1960s as a drug for morning sickness.

However, it produced serious limb deformities in thousands of babies whose mothers took the drug while in the early stages of pregnancy. It is estimated that 8,000 people world-wide are still living with disabilities caused by the drug.

Child with thalidomide disability
Thalidomide caused very serious limb deformities

A team from the University of Arkansas studied nine patients who were being given a chemotherapy drug called irinotecan.

The drug can only be administered in limited doses because it causes diarrhoea and nausea and in up to 30% of patients the side effects are so severe that treatment has to be modified or interrupted.

By combining irinotecan with thalidomide, the researchers were able to help eight out of nine of the patients complete their course of chemotherapy.

Further trials of the drug combination are now underway, and must be successfully completed before it is approved for use.

Useful drug

Thalidomide was banned in the 1960s, but in 1998 the US Food and Drug Administration approved use of the drug for treating the inflammatory complications of leprosy.

However, the drug has also been touted as a possible treatment for cancer as it is thought to be able to shut down the blood supply to tumours.


We are conducting trials into its possible use as a treatment for ovarian cancer in combination with other cancer drugs

Imperial Cancer Research Fund

Patients with multiple myeloma, cancer of the bone marrow, benefited from doses of the drug taken as part of a study in the US.

And doctors in the UK are using the drug to treat symptoms associated with rare genetic conditions.

A spokesman for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund said: "We are also looking to see whether thalidomide has any anti-cancer properties.

"We are conducting trials into its possible use as a treatment for ovarian cancer in combination with other cancer drugs."

After lung cancer, bowel cancer is the second deadliest form of the disease, accounting for 48 deaths in the UK every day.

But as many as 50% of lives could be saved by early detection and treatment.

Possible symptoms of bowel cancer include:

  • Blood or mucus in stools
  • Abdominal pains
  • Change in your bowel habit
  • A feeling of not emptying your bowels
  • Weight loss and anaemia
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28 Oct 98 | Health
Thalidomide returns to the UK
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