50 years ago, a drug that crippled a generation found new life as a leprosy treatment

Excerpt from the July 19, 1969 issue of Science News


SECOND CHANCE  Thalidomide, a sedative prescribed to pregnant women in the 1950s and early 1960s, was banned for causing severe birth defects such as malformed limbs. The drug found new life, though, as a leprosy treatment, and is still used today.

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Science News cover from July 19, 1969Thalidomide helps severe cases 

The drug that was banned because of its crippling effect on babies when taken as a tranquilizer and sleeping pill by pregnant women is being studied for its use in Hansen’s disease, or leprosy. Thalidomide has been tried on 22 leprosy patients … on an experimental basis with the permission of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.… The primary action is to halt or prevent acute reactions such as fever and skin lesions. —  Science News, July 19, 1969


The FDA approved thalidomide for leprous skin lesions in limited cases in 1975. Related drugs were approved after 2005 also to help control the immune system and calm inflammation. These drugs also treat psoriasis, arthritis and the blood cancer multiple myeloma. Birth defects remain a risk, so use of thalidomide and its analogs is controlled in the United States. But lax oversight elsewhere means thalidomide is still misused. In Brazil, nearly 200 children born from 2005 to 2010 may have been disabled by the drug, a 2015 study found. The World Health Organization discourages thalidomide use for leprosy. 

Cassie Martin is a deputy managing editor. She has a bachelor's degree in molecular genetics from Michigan State University and a master's degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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