Drug Safety

, Volume 19, Issue 5, pp 339–341

Does Thalidomide Cause Second Generation Birth Defects?

  • Dick Smithells
Current Opinion

DOI: 10.2165/00002018-199819050-00001

Cite this article as:
Smithells, D. Drug-Safety (1998) 19: 339. doi:10.2165/00002018-199819050-00001


The proposed association between thalidomide and second generation birth defects is an improbable hypotheses which lacks, so far, any credible scientific foundation. However, the media have chosen to give it extensive coverage. So much so that even the hard-headed scientist may start wondering if there is anything in it. However, there is no reason to suppose that people with birth defects caused by exposure to thalidomide during embryonic life have any greater or lesser chance of producing children with birth defects. This appears to be the case in practice. The question could be reworded to, ‘Can thalidomide be responsible for identical, or similar, birth defects in 2 generations of the same family?’

For such a phenomenon to be possible, a mechanism must be proposed and there appear to be only 2 possible candidates. The first is that the defects in the parent, originating during embryonic life, have somehow been transmitted to the next generation. The second is that thalidomide is a mutagen as well as a teratogen.

The first mechanism can be excluded, since Lamarckism has long since been abandoned by scientists. The hypothesis that thalidomide is a mutagen and might be responsible for birth defects in the children of thalidomide-damaged people is without any scientific foundation. Birth defects appear to be no more common amongst the children of thalidomide-affected parents than in the general population. It is important that thalidomide-affected adults are firmly reassured on this point. Most of them have now completed their own families, but they may still worry about their grandchildren.

Therefore, unless and until further supportive evidence is reported by a separate and independent source, the answer to the question, ‘Can thalidomide cause second generation defects?’ is a very definite ‘No.’

Copyright information

© Adis International Limited 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dick Smithells
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Paediatrics and Child HealthUniversity of LeedsLeedsEngland
  2. 2.Leeds, West YorkshireEngland

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