Use and Abuse of Drugs - Testing New Drugs

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  Testing new drugs

Thalidomide is a drug that was originally developed as a sleeping pill by a German pharmaceutical company.  Thalidomide was also an effective painkiller.  Shortly after it's first use (in the late 1950s) it was also found to be effective in relieving morning sickness in pregnant women.  However, thalidomide had not been tested for this use.  Thalidomide was in use for around three years and many babies born to mothers who had taken the drug were born with severe limb abnormalities.  Around 10 000 babies were born with limb abnormalities caused by the use of thalidomide around the world.  Germany was the worst affected country followed by the UK.  Once a link between the drug and the birth defects was proven by scientists, the drug was quickly banned and this led to tighter rules for testing drugs before they could be used by patients.  A long campaign run by the Sunday Times eventually led to victims receiving some compensation in the 1970s.  In January 2010, more than 50 years after the drug was first used, the British Government issued a formal apology to those affected.  Around the same time £20 million was awarded in compensation to the 466 survivors.

thalidomide

The baby shown above was born to a mother who had take thalidomide during early pregnancy.

How drugs are tested

New drugs are tested in the laboratory to find out if they are toxic and to find out whether they work. These tests often involve the use of animals. If a drug passes these tests, it is then tested on humans in clinical trials. Very low doses of the drug are given at the start of the trial. If the drug is found to be safe, further clinical trials are carried out to find the optimum dose for the drug. During drug trials, some patients are given a placebo which does not contain the drug. Neither the doctors nor the patients know who has received a placebo and who has received the drug until the trial is complete.