In the 1950s and early 1960s, thousands of babies were born with severe deformities because the drug thalidomide was prescribed to their mothers to treat nausea associated with pregnancy, or morning sickness.
It was a tragedy and a scandal especially because the medical profession could not explain how the drug actually worked. It seemed to help and so was prescribed, but no one apparently considered the possible side effects.
Fifty years later, researchers in Japan and the United States have made discoveries about thalidomide and possibly more potent derivatives and what they can do to halt the growth of certain classes of cancer cells in the body, the so-called B-cell malignancies, that may go a long way toward erasing the drug's terrible reputation.
The cancers include multiple myeloma, a kind of leukemia, and some lymphomas. Because it also suppresses the immune system, lupus may also be a candidate for treatment with thalidomide derivatives.
The Japanese scientists discovered that the drugs work by binding to proteins called transcription factors that give signals for cellular growth. Many cancers are the result of overactive transcription factors, switches that stop switching off.
These proteins are also responsible for normal limb development of babies in the womb. In the case of multiple myeloma, lenalidomide, a powerful derivative of thalidomide, killed multiple myeloma cells in the laboratory.
According to Dr. William Kaelin Jr., of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, this ability "could be a template for targeting other transcription factors linked to cancer."
That would be ironic indeed.
Copyright Providence (R.I.) Journal. Distributed by the Associated Press.