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Thalidomide can dramatically improve the survival rate of patients diagnosed with blood cancer, a study suggests.
Controversy has surrounded the drug since its use led to the birth of thousands of deformed babies in the 1960s.
But researchers discovered that by adding thalidomide to the standard treatment usually administered to elderly patients with multiple myeloma, their lives were extended by an average of 18 months.
The disease, which attacks blood plasma, mainly affects people over the age of 70, and each year causes thousands of deaths.
A team of French researchers led by Professor Thierry Facon, from Lille University Hospital, studied 447 previously untreated patients aged between 65 and 75.
Their findings, published in The Lancet, show those given standard therapy of the drugs melphalan and prednisone plus thalidomide survived an average of 51.6 months.
In comparison, another group given melphalan and prednisone alone only survived for 33.2 months.
Professor Gareth Morgan, from London’s Royal Marsden Hospital, said: “Improvement in cancer survival is usually measured in weeks, not months, so this is very significant data. An extra 18 months of life can make a lot of difference to my patients and their families.”
At present thalidomide can only be prescribed and dispensed through a carefully regulated programme.
However, drug company Pharmion is now seeking permission for thalidomide to be used in conjunction with melphalan and prednisone to treat certain patients with multiple myeloma.
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“Of course thalidomide should be marketed. It is – and should be – regarded as an anticancer drug with the usual properties of such a class. It is not a highly dangerous immunomodulating agent. MTX and other antifolates also lead to birth defects and cancer patients are usually advised to contracept. This is not restricted to women! See the SPC of cyclophosphamide.” – Name and address provided