Thalidomide Slows Cancer-Related Weight Loss

The drug is making a comeback as cancer, AIDS therapy

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TUESDAY, March 8, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Thalidomide, long associated with birth defects, may have a good side: a small study finds the drug helps slow the weight loss and wasting of patients with advanced pancreatic cancer.

"In the future, combination of thalidomide with nutritional supplements and pharmacological agents may ultimately lead to a better clinical outcome," wrote British researchers reporting in the March issue of Gut.

Rapid weight loss is a hallmark of pancreatic cancer, which is often detected too late and has a very high mortality rate. The study included 50 terminally ill pancreatic cancer patients who'd already lost at least 10 percent of their body weight. Participants were randomly assigned to receive daily doses of either 200 milligrams of thalidomide or placebo for six months.

At one month, patients taking thalidomide had regained an average of 0.37 kilograms (0.8 pounds) of weight and had increased their arm muscle bulk by 1 centimeter. The patients taking the placebo had lost an average of 2.21 kilograms (nearly 5 pounds) and their arm muscle bulk had decreased by 4.46 centimeters.

After two months, those taking thalidomide had lost an average of 0.06 kilograms (0.13 pounds) of weight and their arm muscle bulk had decreased by 0.5 centimeters, compared with an average loss of 3.62 kilograms (8 pounds) of weight and 8.4 centimeters of arm muscle bulk among those taking the placebo.

The increases in weight were matched by increased physical capacity. There was no difference in survival times between the two groups. Thalidomide caused few side effects, the study said.

Severe wasting is the direct cause of death in 20 percent of patients with advanced cancer. Previous research found that thalidomide can help control wasting in AIDS patients and may help reduce weight loss in tuberculosis patients.

More information

The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more about pancreatic cancer.

SOURCE: BMJ Specialist Journals, news release, March 8, 2005

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