Updated: Apr 28
Ask your friends and relatives about how often they encounter birth defects, and you’ll probably receive “not often” as a response. This makes sense, given that in the US alone, only 3% of living infants are affected with physical anomalies.
Deformities deceive us to be a phenomenon of the old world, prior to the advent of modern medicine. Our current healthcare system reassures us that we can trust that the quality of life will almost instantaneously improve.
This makes us complacent— and in turn, we remain unappreciative of how vital checks and balances are when it comes to healthcare. Many nations still struggle with adapting to the growing health needs of their populations, despite boasting their economic prowess.
This poses the question about if we could learn anything from our not so distant past. Chemistry, acting as the fabric of medicine and all things biology, could have the answers we’re looking for.
In the dark waters of South Africa, Brazil is still suffering from Thalidomide. This is far from a disease— being more a drug designed to help humanity, it ameliorates many common afflictions, ranging from leprosy to nausea. It surfaced as a super-drug conceived from benevolent pharmaceuticals.
With its potential medicinal value, the drug proved tempting. However, limb deformities quickly surfaced in the newborns of those who had consumed the drug during pregnancy. The pill, despite its devastating effects on tribal populations, has been a subject of controversy since its conception in 1957.
However, it was only in 2018 did scientists discover the reason behind the devastating side effects of thalidomide. 61 years later, it was uncovered that the potent chemical properties of the drug degrades transcription protein vital for the gene SALL4. The result was abnormally shortened limbs for the unsuspecting baby.
Controlling the Drug
Chemists have been quick to study the properties of Thalidomide to uncover its darkest secrets. The pill turns out to consist of an optical isomer. Optical isomerism are 2 compounds with identical atoms and bonds, with different spatial arrangements of the bonds and have non-super imposable mirror images.
The effective isomer alone does not directly affect genetic materials. However, in blood, it transforms into a mutagenic isomer that modifies the gene.
Consumption of the drug allows the effective isomer to enter the bloodstream of the consumer, thus proving harmful when consumed.
Thankfully, the American populace barely managed to escape the grasp of the harmful effects of the drug. Through groundbreaking work in Chemistry, FDA’s Frances Oldham Kelsey (pictured on the left) rejected Thalidomide for everyday use. This was unprecedented, as checks and balances in the 1950’s were ambiguous.
This knowledge in Chemistry saved hundreds of thousands of American children from being ravaged by deformities.
Meanwhile, overseas in Europe, countries such as Germany where the pill originated, had devastated families. Thousands of children were found to have sustained irreversible deformities, who would otherwise be healthy with limitless potential.
Helping the Fight against COVID-19
The pill has been cast into the spotlight once again, this time surfacing as a possible cure for the novel COVID-19 that has grown into a pandemic. Demonstrating anti-inflammatory properties and acting as anti-fibrotic, Chinese experts at Wenzhou university have speculated whether the drug could be used to inhibit lung inflammation, a symptom of COVID-19.
In our desperation to resolve the pandemic, it's imperative to ensure checks and balances are still in place, regardless of the pace at which humanity can discover a cure. Through the long march of investigations, till now the adverse side effects of Thalidomide remain prominent. Well into their adult lives, victims of this potent drug are still suffering from crippled limbs and poor life expectancy rates.
The manipulations and PR moves conducted by pharmaceuticals grants the adverse side effects of pills a leeway to harm the masses. In times of hopelessness, we must not cave into naivety and believe in an all-in-one solution to our problems. To prevent a similar fallout, we ought to remain vigilant with science.