Thalidomide, Animal Testing, And Investigative Journalism
There are some apparently misreported ‘facts’ about thalidomide that seem to keep cropping up – for example, that the teratogenic effects were covered up by the medical profession, that it was investigative journalists that uncovered the scandal of the purported cover-up, and that thalidomide proves that animal testing is useless.
Animal rights protesters have claimed that thalidomide is a good example of the uselessness of animal testing. Here are a couple of quotes: “one must never forget that Thalidomide, was fully tested on rats…“; “Thalidamide was passed for use after tests on rodents, so animals are unrelable as a guide to human biology, different species react differently …“
Thalidomide was indeed passed for use after being tested on rodents. However, it was not “fully tested” in the sense that it was not (as far as I can tell) tested on pregnant animals before being prescribed to pregnant women. It is not true that thalidomide is a good example of animals being “unreliable as a guide to human biology”, because when the drug was tested in pregnant animals (after the dangerous side-effects had been observed in humans) teratogenic effects were seen.
There is comment on the failure to test thalidomide in pregnant animals here: understandinganimalresearch and here: spiked-online. Meanwhile, there is a claim here that thalidomide was tested on pregnant animals prior to being approve and this book makes the same claim: Google Books. [Note: like the BBC, Stuff And Nonsense is not responsible for content on external websites. The author does not endorse any of the websites linked to above.]
It has been difficult to find reliable information on whether thalidomide was tested on pregnant animals prior to approval. While it is difficult to ‘prove’ a negative – that thalidomide was never tested on pregnant animals prior to approval – it should not be as difficult to demonstrate that it was (if this were the case).
Yet, the best that this website can come up with seems to be an argument from personal incredulity: “It has been claimed that thalidomide was never tested on pregnant animals before it was given to humans, although this is unlikely. Animal experiments were standard practice.”
Of course, animal experimentation being standard practice means nothing here – it does not seem that anyone disputes that thalidomide was tested on animals. The dispute is over whether thalidomide was tested on pregnant animals. And testing new drugs on pregnant animals does not seem to have been standard practice prior to thalidomide. This letter to the BMJ points out that: “Thalidomide was never tested in pregnant animals before its use in patients.
After the first publication describing fetal abnormalities in babies whose mothers had taken thalidomide during pregnancy the drug was shown to be teratogenic in rats, mice, hamsters, rabbits, and three species of monkeys. The mandatory teratogenic tests on potential medicines instituted by the regulatory authorities as a result of the thalidomide disaster prevented a similar tragedy with the oral acne treatment retinoin.”
So mandatory teratogenice testing apparently does not pre-date the approval of thalidomide – it came about because of what happened when thalidomide was introduced.
There is also the use of thalidomide as an example of medical conspiracy: here, we have an example of somebody on an investigative journalism course “suggesting that thalidomide was another example of the medical profession covering stuff up”.
This alleged ‘cover-up’ apparently didn’t extend to the Australian obstetrician William McBride and the German pediatrician Widukind Lenz. The James Lind Library has a copy of the letter sent to the Lancet by McBride: here.
If the medical profession were writing letters to medical journals pointing out the increased incidence in birth defects that they perceived among pregnant women taking thalidomide and medical journals were printing them, then it’s not really something that could be described as a ‘medical profession cover-up’ in my opinion.
There is a piece on the BBC website that discusses thalidomide and refers to the role played by Lenz and a lawyer (Karl Schulte-Hillen), while Wikipedia also has a page on the drug that includes detail of the discovery of teratogenic effects: here. The effects of thalidomide were reported by the medical profession, not by investegative journalists. (The Sunday Times did, however, run a campaign for compensation for UK victims.)
Clearly, some people are making claims that they cannot support. I tried to find out the truth regarding the testing of thalidomide, but almost every claim seemed to lead to a book – or to a paper published long ago and unavailable on the internet. This lack of access to reliable material makes it difficult to discern the truth of this case.
Thankfully, more modern controversies are easier to investigate – the truth of the media’s MMR hoax, for example, can be uncovered more easily than the truth of the thalidomide scandal, partly because so much information is publicly available and easily accessible via the web.
Update, 24th August 2011
Covered here by the Science Based Medicine blog.