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Thalidomide is Back: and This Time it Gives You Cancer

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning over the drug revlimid (lenalidomide) used to treat multiple myeloma and a blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome. Trials of revlimid found that there is an increase in the risk of developing other cancers among those who take the drug.
Despite this fact, the FDA has said that patients should continue to take the drug even though they admit they are still reviewing all the data from the trial and have no idea if the drug is safe.

Medical professionals are being reminded that if they choose to prescribe the drug, it may increase the risk of developing subsequent cancers, particularly acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) and B-cell lymphoma malignancies.

This isn’t the first time the drug has been in the spotlight for its adverse effects. Lenalidomide is an analogue of thalidomide, the drug responsible for causing birth defects in large numbers of babies after their mothers took it to ease morning sickness. It also led to the deaths of 100,000 babies in the womb worldwide, and many other babies who died in the first year of life. In Britain there were 5,000 deaths of infants up to one year and another 500 people who survived with deformities.

The drug was banned in 1961 after a gynecologist, William McBride, realized that the deaths and deformities were the result of thalidomide. In the 1990’s, he was struck off the medical register after it was alleged that he committed fraud during a study of another anti-morning sickness drug, Debendox, in 1980. He found that Debendox also caused deformities. In his book, "Killing the Messenger", Mr McBride wrote, "Without flattering myself, I am sure the decision [to strike me off] was received with pleasure by many of the international drug companies."

In 2008, the drug was re-introduced under a different name--lenalidomide, or revlimid--to be used for the treatment of multiple myeloma cancer, in spite of resistance from patient groups and thalidomide survivor charities. It had already been in use as a treatment for leprosy in Brazil and the country had seen a corresponding increase in the number of babies born deformed.
Now it appears to be causing cancer in people who are already seriously ill and the FDA has not recalled it, bringing the question, is it really the public’s interest they are protecting?

FDA Drug Safety Communication: Ongoing safety review of Revlimid (lenalidomide) and possible increased risk of developing new malignancies, 8th April 2011 - http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/ucm250575.htm
The Sunday Times, 23rd March 2008 - http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/leading_article/article3602839.ece
The Times, 22nd April 2008 - http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/health/article3671976.ece
The Independent, 22nd June 1994 - http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/thalidomide-doctor-alleges-plot-to-gag-him-1424275.html

Joanna is a freelance health writer for The Mother magazine and Suite 101 with a column on infertility, http://infertility.suite101.com/. She is author of the book, 'Breast Milk: A Natural Immunisation,' and co-author of an educational resource on disabled parenting, in addition to running a charity for people damaged by vaccines or medical mistakes.

Add a Comment5 Comments

The point is, they haven't finished trialling it yet and still gave it to patients even given its history. If a relative of mine were going to be given a cancer drug I would want to know that it had been fully trialled first, especially if they were dying (and my father did die of cancer, in fact).
They aren't going to know the true effects or incidence of secondary cancers until they finish investigating so the public aren't aware yet of the true benefit (or not) of this drug.

April 17, 2011 - 4:26am
EmpowHER Guest

The article and title of this article are irresponsible. Multple myeloma is a blood cancer with a life expectancy of 3-6 years. Thalidomide and
Revlimid have been shown to be very effective in extending this life expectancy. IF if causes a 1-2% increased risk in secondary cancers, big deal.
Do not put it on your children's breakfast cereal as a flavoring--that is correct!!

April 13, 2011 - 7:20am

I'm not saying it doesn't do its intended function and if it has helped people then that's great, but the FDA say it is causing increases in other cancers (according to their website) and it has caused birth defects in Brazil after it was used as a leprosy drug and many deaths and defects in unborn babies so I do think they are being less than careful with a drug with this kind of track record.

April 13, 2011 - 2:04am
EmpowHER Guest

This whole story is bull. The story is written as if the fda allowed a medication on the market that can kill you with cancer. THE DRUG IS GIVEN FOR MULTIPLE MYELOMA A FATAL INCURABLE CANCER. Without the drug most people will defiently die from cancer as the drug controls the cancer for several years for some people. The person who wrote the story doesn't have a clue. My wife has been taking the drug for about 1.5 years and it is help keeping her alive.
The writer would have you think the FDA allowed a killer drug on the market for anyone.

April 13, 2011 - 12:58am
EmpowHER Guest

I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma two years ago. After a three cycles of Revlimid, Decadron and Velcade I had a complete response. I went from Stage 3 -- over 90 percent malignant plasma cells -- to no sign of the cancer in six weeks. The drug saved my life.

Older chemotherapy drugs that are used to treat multiple myeloma also increase the risk of secondary cancers. But if I did not have the treatment with Revlimid I would probably be dead today. I will take the risk of a possibility of a secondary cancer down the road in exchange for a complete response. Revlimid in combination with Decadron and Velcade have the response rates of any drug combination ever seen for multiple myeloma.

April 12, 2011 - 6:05pm
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