[ Skip Navigation ]
Purpose
Typical Immunomodulator

Thalidomide

Thalidomide summons horrific images of deformed babies. Yet the drug is back in clinical use, helping to treat various diseases. What had been feared for its teratogenic effects is now life-saving. This remarkable transformation of thalidomide from notoriety to respectability testifies to the success of the stronger drug regulations in the U.S. that the tragedy of thalidomide babies engendered.

According to "Protecting America's Health: The FDA, Business, and One Hundred Years of Regulation," by Philip J. Hilts (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), the German drugmaker Chemie Grünenthal introduced thalidomide--under the brand name Contergan--to the German market on Oct. 1, 1957, as a sedative to treat insomnia as well as to reduce nausea associated with pregnancy. By 1960, the drug was in more than 20 countries in Europe and Africa. On Nov. 18, 1961, the German paper Welt am Sonntag reported on a study finding that pregnant women who had been taking thalidomide were giving birth to babies with gross deformities. "By November 27, Grünenthal had pulled the drug off the market, blaming the sensationalism of the press," Hilts writes.

Thousands of thalidomide babies were born in Europe. Thousands more might have been born in the U.S. were it not for a reviewing medical officer at the Food & Drug Administration named Frances Oldham Kelsey. When she joined FDA in 1960, her first assignment was thalidomide. Her dogged insistence on safety data derailed the drug's approval in the U.S.

On Sept. 12, 1960, Richardson-Merrell Inc. submitted a New Drug Application to market thalidomide in the U.S. under the brand name Kevadon. According to various accounts, the company was aggressively seeking to have the drug approved by early 1961.

Kelsey found the data for the application "extremely inadequate," FDA historian John P. Swann says. At the time, the prevailing law was the 1938 Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, which required proof of safety to be submitted to FDA before a drug could be approved for marketing. "The application did not establish the drug's safety, so it could not be approved," Swann says.

On the basis of the 1938 law, Kelsey insisted that Richardson-Merrell conduct further studies to establish the drug's safety, Swann says. "It's fascinating to see how many letters and communications went back and forth. She was asking for additional data, and what they were sending was in her eyes insufficient to answer the questions she was raising. She was increasingly pressured by the sponsor to get the drug approved. She didn't back down." On March 8, 1962, Richardson-Merrell withdrew its drug application, after the effects were widely publicized.

BY CURRENT standards, the drug evaluation and regulatory laws in place in the late 1950s were appallingly inadequate. In many European countries, for example, "they were insufficient to control the easy distribution of a product like thalidomide," Swann says.

The U.S. was still operating under the 1938 act, which did not require demonstration of efficacy for a drug to be approved. The law also allowed "experimental" use of drugs while approval was being sought, which, at the time, meant that a drug could be distributed--widely--before it was approved. In Congress, however, questions were beginning to be raised about the practices of the drug industry and the effectiveness of FDA's drug review process.

By the early 1960s, "the drug approval process was under considerable criticism, particularly the quality of the scientific data submitted in New Drug Applications and the lack of an efficacy requirement," according to Kelsey, writing in the 1996 annual report of FDA's Office of Compliance. "The nature and magnitude of the thalidomide disaster," she wrote, spurred the swift passage of legislation addressing the shortcomings of the 1938 law that had been sitting in Congress before the disaster. Known as Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments, they were signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in October 1962.

FDA thus acquired the power to require proof of both safety and efficacy in New Drug Applications. According to the FDA document "Time Line: Chronology of Drug Regulation in the United States," the 1962 law for the first time required drug manufacturers to prove to FDA the effectiveness of their products before marketing them. The law gave the agency closer control over investigational drug studies and granted FDA inspectors access to additional company records. It also required manufacturers to demonstrate the efficacy of products approved prior to 1962.

The thalidomide disaster also focused attention on the distribution of investigational drugs, Swann says. It turns out that Richardson-Merrell had given thalidomide to thousands of patients, including some hundred pregnant women, under the 1938 law's experimental-use provision, he explains. In light of how widely Richardson-Merrell disseminated an unapproved drug, regulations were promulgated for closer oversight of investigational drugs, including the requirement of informed consent from patients being treated with investigational drugs.

By stubbornly insisting on applying the safety provisions of the 1938 law, Kelsey thwarted the introduction of thalidomide to the U.S. market; as a result, the thalidomide tragedy in the U.S. was of a far smaller magnitude than that in Europe. For that achievement, Kelsey received from President Kennedy in August 1962 the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service.

Because of thalidomide, new drug candidates now are tested for the ability to cause birth defects. In general, drug candidates showing such activity in animal models are dropped like hot potatoes. Now, however, thalidomide is showing how compounds with extremely dangerous side effects still can be used therapeutically with the appropriate controls and precautions.

It turns out that thalidomide has potent anti-inflammatory effects that can ease erythema nodosum leprosum, a painful inflammatory condition associated with Hansen's disease, also known as leprosy. In July 1998, FDA approved the application of Celgene to market thalidomide--under the brand name Thalomid--for treatment of that condition. Because of the drug's well-known teratogenicity, FDA also imposed severe restrictions on the drug's distribution.