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Thalidomide research breakthrough

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen have discovered why limb defects occur in babies born to mothers who have taken thalidomide

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, have discovered why limb defects occur in babies born to mothers who have taken thalidomide.

Dr Neil Vargesson, who led the research, said: "We have put to rest a 50-year puzzle, in finally deducing how thalidomide triggers limb defects and why it appears to target limbs preferentially." The paper published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that the drug prevents the growth of new blood vessels. 

In the 1950s thalidomide was prescribed to treat morning sickness and was taken during the stage of pregnancy when limbs are developed in the embryo. It is thought to have caused about 10,000 babies to be born with deformities. 

The drug has multiple actions, some of which are of great medical value - such as in the treatment of leprosy. Although the risks are now known, in South America and Africa some children with limb defects are born to mothers who have been treated with thalidomide.

The research reveals that only one component causes birth abnormalities and this could lead to new therapies that retain the benefits without the risk. Thalidomide can stop tumours growing larger and is used to treat some cancers. Further therapeutic indications could be investigated if the risks to the unborn child are eliminated.

12th May 2009

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