By Todd Michaelis, ‘90
Trent D. Stephens, ’73, MS ’74, PhD University of Pennsylvania ’77 (Kathleen Brown, ’74), Pocatello, Idaho, has cowritten Dark Remedy: The Impact of Thalidomide and Its Revival as a Vital Medicine. The book recounts the saga of thalidomide, which caused deformities in some 10,000 children in 46 countries.
Thalidomide was developed in West Germany and marketed in 1957 as an over-the-counter sedative. By the early 1960s it was second only to aspirin in drug sales in some European countries. Thalidomide was specifically recommended to pregnant women suffering from morning sickness. By 1960, however, the drug’s manufacturer, Grünenthal, began receiving reports of side effects.
“Thalidomide can contribute to a range of defects, including autism and reduction in upper limbs. In extreme cases, a child can be born without arms and legs,” Stephens says. By 1961 the connection of birth defects to thalidomide was identified in Australia and West Germany. Bowing to media and government pressure, Grünenthal withdrew the drug from the market at the end of 1961.
In 1998 the Food and Drug Administration approved tightly controlled use of thalidomide for leprosy. The return of the drug is also reported in Stephens’ book. “Thalidomide may be useful in treating horrible diseases,” Stephens says, “but it can still cause horrible diseases.”
Stephens first learned about the drug in a Scientific American article when he was a high school freshman. Stephens’ interest in abnormal development and thalidomide grew considerably at BYU while studying drug-induced malformations with zoology professor Robert E. Seegmiller.