• Question: There are side-effects of drugs as we know such as Thalidomide. This drug caused thousands of babies worldwide to be born with malformed limbs. Still to this date there are families suffering because of the drug. What do you think of this, "tradegy"?, and how do you think the system of drug testing has improved since then. Does the system protect the vulnerable, such as: students, the poor ect..? How do you think this could change?, or would you even change it?

    Asked by Timmy to Sudhin, Sergio, Katie, Diarmuid, Aoife on 20 Nov 2019.
    • Photo: Katie Fala

      Katie Fala answered on 20 Nov 2019:

      Thalidomide is certainly one of the tragedies in medical science and drug development, one of my grandmothers was given this in pregnancy but was one of the lucky few to not experience ill effects from it. Afaik one component was the process of production – at the time the methods and equipment was less advanced. In chemistry, molecules can have slightly different structures called enantiomers (you can think about this like your hands – you have a right hand and a left hand that are similiar but mirror images of oneanother). In the case of thalidomide when they synthesised it there was a 50/50 split between the R and S isomers. At the time they didn’t know/weren’t able to purify out the S form, which causes birth defects, from the R form which has a therapeutic effect. So nowadays enantiomers are actively considered and evaluated during the drug discovery and testing process.

      I think that the biggest improvements have been in biomedical ethics and clinical trials. I would say almost all science degrees have at least one module on ethics. Nowadays it is impossible to conduct research with humans or animals without going through a lengthy approval process with the ethics board of your institute, where you must show that your project respects the participants, doesn’t do unnecessary harm and overall brings more good, and that the risks and benefits are equally distributed. This is extra work, but it is fundamental to doing science ethically. Similiarly, clinical trials are conducted stringently over many years with several different phases to make sure we know about the safety, efficacy and potential side effects of new drugs before they are released on the market. It can be frustrating to see really promising new therapies tied up in the approval process while people suffer from the diseases that they could cure, but I think that the current system is necessary to prevent tragedies like the Thalidomide scandal from reoccurring.