Thalidomide May Help Patients With Deadly Lung Disease

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"[Thalidomide] stopped the cough in its tracks," said Gwartney. "As far as [treating] the symptoms go, it's been a lifesaver."

Chambers echoed these sentiments; for him, the drug reduced his coughing up to 90 percent.

"I have a lot more confidence and ability to live up to my professional expertise," he said. "[Thalidomide] has been a godsend for me, and something that I have been blessed with."

However, thalidomide does not come without risks. Aside from relatively minor side effects like constipation, malaise, and dizziness, the drug is also associated with tingling in the extremities. More importantly, the drug still poses a threat for birth defects when used in women of childbearing age.

All of the patients in this trial were over the age of 50, and none were going to have children. Still, Chambers said that the drug company conducted a monthly interview with him to ensure that he did not expose any pregnant or child-bearing women to the drug.

"There's a lot of reasons for people to stay away from this drug," Chambers said.

Dr. Micah Bhatti, a fellow in infectious disease at the University of Chicago Medical Center, said he thought patients "would be open to the use of thalidomide if they've exhausted other treatment options and there is a frank and open discussion about the known side effects."

All of the patients in the study -- Gwartney and Chambers included -- requested to stay on the drug after the trial was over, despite its potential risks. They have both been taking it now for nearly two years.

Gwartney said that she feels that new treatments designed actually to treat her disease will probably come too late to help her. The disease, she said, continues to progress.

"But that's not the fault of the thalidomide," she said. "That, at least, makes each day livable."

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