In new cancer research, Thalidomide
was used as an angiogenesis
(formation of new blood vessels) inhibitor to slow or even stop the growth of cancerous tumors
. This new phase of cancer research
was begun by Dr. Judah Folkman
who originally started work as a surgeon. Most cancer research at the time, and even up until just a few years ago, focused on the genetics
of the cancer cells
themselves - perhaps to find the mechanism by which they spread and thus find a reliable way to keep them from spreading further. Dr. Folkman, being a surgeon and having removed numerous tumors, noticed that the tumors were always riddled with blood vessels and seemed to have a constant supply of fresh blood
. Through research he discovered that without these vessels constantly pumping in freshly oxygenated
blood, the cancer cells would lay dormant and would not grow any further.
Dr. Folkman also discovered that cancer cells release a molecule that stimulates the formation of new blood vessels so that the cell can gain its much needed blood supply. Essentially the cancer cells would modify the body to make it better suit their growth. Logically, he then searched for a way to inhibit the growth of these new capillaries and thus stop the food supply to the cancerous cells.
Through years of research and with a team of experienced scientists, Dr. Folkman isolated the molecules from some substances that would stop angiogenesis in the right environment. Most of these compounds proved too weak however and the search continued. Through a stroke of luck, one of the scientists working with Dr. Folkman thought to look through existing pharmaceuticals to see if any of them had the side effect that they desired. He stumbled directly onto Thalidomide. Its angiogenesis-inhibiting properties caused the deformity in the children who had been exposed to it in the womb. The drug had stopped the growth of new blood vessels, thus causing loss of limbs and poor circulation.
As stated previously, Thalidomide was not found to be effective enough in clinical trials to be used extensively, but it was one of the building blocks of this new research which could very well be crucial in the fight against cancer. A new drug, called Endostatin, has been produced and has been found to significantly slow the growth of cancer in many individuals.
The research continues, and the documentary this was taken from can be seen at the PBS website.