PARIS, Sept 1, 2012 (AFP) - Originally given to pregnant women half a century ago to limit morning sickness, thalidomide caused birth defects in thousands of babies, a tragedy for which the German firm that manufactured the drug officially apologised for the first time on Friday.
The sedative drug, made by Chemie Grunenthal and sold between 1957 and 1962, affected at least 10,000 babies in some 40 countries, especially in ermany, Britain, Australia and Canada. Some estimates put the number at nearer 20,000.
Children were born with stunted, twisted or missing limbs because thalidomide binds to, and deactives, a protein known as cereblon which helps forms limbs, research in the journal Science showed in 2010.
When the realisation dawned that thalidomide was teratogenic, the drug was withdrawn from the British and German markets, in late 1961. But it continued to be sold in Canada until August 1962, in Japan until September and in Belgium until December of that year.
The scandal led to a tightening of vetting procedures for drug prototypes and scrutiny of claims by pharmaceutical giants.
In recent years, though, interest in it has revived as a research tool but also as a treatment for diseases that attack the body's immune system including a form of cancer called multiple myeloma, and for inflammatory diseases such as lupus erythematosus and Crohn's diease.
It can also help relieve the side-effects from leprosy and severe mouth ulcers resulting from HIV infection.
Thalidomide is prescribed to patients only in very tightly controlled conditions and remains outlawed for general distribution.