It may seem perverse in a discussion of discovering cures in medicine to focus on the thalidomide case. Yet, as we shall see, the thalidomide case, though deeply tragic, is, at the same time, very instructive. It shows, among other things, that a cure cannot be said to have been discovered until it has been shown that it does not cause significant harm to the patient. Thus evaluating evidence for safety plays a crucial role in drug discovery, and, in the thalidomide case, consideration of evidence of mechanism was very important in assessing safety.
Although the thalidomide disaster is well known to everyone, it is not so widely known that thalidomide turned out, most surprisingly, to be an effective cure for some very serious and previously untreatable conditions. This is a striking illustration of the role of serendipity in discovering cures in medicine.
Donald Gillies is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Science and Mathematics at UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies. Prof Gillies presented on ‘Discovering Cures in Medicine: the Thalidomide case‘ at the EBM+ workshop ‘New frontiers for evaluating evidence in medicine‘, which took place on 20 June at UCL London. Read and download Prof Gillies’s talk here.