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Thalidomide: Research advances in cancer and other conditions

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Jul 3, 2021.

In the 1950s and 1960s, thalidomide was used to treat morning sickness during pregnancy. But it was found to cause disabilities in the babies born to those taking the drug.

Now, decades later, thalidomide (Thalomid) is being used to treat a skin condition and cancer. It's also being investigated as a treatment for many other disorders.

New uses and ongoing research

As research into thalidomide continued, doctors found that it helps regulate the body's germ-fighting immune system and helps control inflammation. Studies also showed that thalidomide slows the process the body uses to create new blood vessels. Cancers use this same process to get the fuel they need to grow and spread.

That research led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the use of thalidomide for treating:

  • Skin lesions caused by leprosy (erythema nodosum leprosum)
  • Multiple myeloma

Thalidomide research continues as doctors find new uses for the drug. Research has shown some promise in using thalidomide to treat inflammatory skin conditions, such as cutaneous lupus and Behcet's disease, Crohn's disease, and many types of cancer.

Special procedures required to prevent pregnancy

If you take thalidomide, it isn't safe for you or your partner to become pregnant. So if you and your doctor decide that thalidomide is appropriate for you, you'll need to take extra precautions to avoid pregnancy.

In the United States, the FDA has special requirements to reduce the risk of harm to babies born to those taking thalidomide. Before you can begin taking the drug, you must undergo counseling about the potential side effects, sign a consent form and agree to use multiple forms of contraception. You may undergo periodic pregnancy testing during treatment.

If you suspect that you've become pregnant, stop taking thalidomide and contact your doctor immediately.

Side effects other than birth defects

People taking thalidomide might also experience other side effects, such as:

  • Damage to nerves in the fingers and toes (peripheral neuropathy) that causes pain, tingling and numbness
  • Blood clots in the legs (deep vein thrombosis) or near the lungs (pulmonary embolism)
  • Drowsiness
  • Rash
  • Dizziness

Take your medication exactly as prescribed by your doctor. Check with your doctor before taking any other medications, including prescription medications and medications that are available without a prescription.

Creating a safer thalidomide

Researchers are working to create drugs that work like thalidomide but have fewer side effects. Drugs that are chemically similar to thalidomide are available, including:

  • Lenalidomide (Revlimid)
  • Pomalidomide (Pomalyst)

Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about thalidomide. Understanding thalidomide's history, its risks and its potential benefits can help you decide if it's right for you.

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