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March 16, 1990

Thalidomide's Back in the News, but in More Favorable Circumstances

JAMA. 1990;263(11):1467-1468. doi:10.1001/jama.1990.03440110019002

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RESEARCHERS ARE taking a second look at what is perhaps the most notorious and stigmatized drug in the recent history of drug therapy: thalidomide.

Once marketed as a sleeping pill, the drug is blamed for nearly 12 000 birth defects in the late 1950s, some 10 000 of these in the Federal Republic of (West) Germany alone.

No other pharmaceutical has provoked such dramatic changes in the drug regulatory process around the world—a reputation that could have precluded its therapeutic use forever. But a series of chance events followed by an extensive body of research has uncovered a new side to the drug that its original manufacturers never imagined: thalidomide is a potent immunosuppressive that lacks the toxic side effects of steroids.

This other side to thalidomide was discovered serendipitously by Israeli dermatologist J. Sheskin, MD, at Rothchild Hadassah University Hospital, Jerusalem, in 1965. He treated six of his lepromatous