In the 1950s, thalidomide (Contergan) was prescribed as a sedative drug to pregnant women, resulting in a great number of infants with serious malformations. Up to now, the reasons for these disastrous birth defects have remained unclear. Researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have at last identified the molecular mechanism of thalidomide. Their findings are highly relevant to current cancer therapies, as related substances are essential components of modern cancer treatment regimens.
Thalidomide was marketed as a sedative in West Germany and some other countries under the brand name "Contergan". 55 years ago, in 1961, it hit the headlines after having caused horrific deformations in unborn children. Between 5,000 and 10,000 children were affected worldwide. To this day, more than 2,000 victims across the world still live with the consequences of this tragedy. Soon after the discovery of these devastating side effects, the drug was withdrawn from the market. More recently, however, thalidomide is experiencing a kind of renaissance, as it was coincidentally discovered to inhibit the growth of certain tumors.
Since then, the two follow-up substances lenalidomide and pomalidomide have been approved for cancer treatment. Both thalidomide-derivatives are successfully used to treat certain bone-marrow cancers such as multiple myeloma. While showing stronger anti-tumor potential, they have fewer side effects than thalidomide. Despite this, they still pose a risk of causing severe birth defects and must not be taken during pregnancy.