[FOUNTAIN]Unpredictable nature of drugs’ side effects

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[FOUNTAIN]Unpredictable nature of drugs’ side effects

Medical specialists are sure to shudder at the thought of thalidomide. Developed as a superb sleeping aid in 1953, the drug also worked wonders in relieving morning sickness in pregnant women, and became immensely popular among expectant mothers. The early animal testing results showed few problems. The seriousness of the side effects was revealed later, when megadoses were repeatedly given to test animals. However, tens of thousands of babies had already been born with birth defects in Germany, Britain and Canada over nine years.
Japanese bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi, whose portrait is on the new 1,000 yen bill, is famous for having overcome a burn injury on his left hand and extreme poverty. An internationally celebrated scholar, Mr. Noguchi took his blood serums and vaccines and went to West Africa, where yellow fever was rampant, although people around him tried to dissuade him. As he was struck down by yellow fever in 1928, he said, “I don’t understand.” The side effects of a new medicine can hit doctors and patients alike.
In the world of medicine, an unexpected side effect can often turn into a “golden egg.” American pharmaceutical company Pfizer’s Viagra was originally developed to treat angina pectoris. The drug was proven to have little effect on angina patients in clinical trials, but it was unexpectedly effective in treating erectile dysfunction in many participants in the trials, and became a blockbuster medicine. Today, patients with heart conditions are advised not to take Viagra.
Bayer aspirin, a panacea that costs only 100 won a pill, is also a good example. Salicylic acid, the main ingredient of aspirin, was originally mass-produced as a textile dye and food preservative in 1853, but it could not be commercialized because of its toxicity. A half century later, German chemist Felix Hoffmann combined salicylic acid and acetic acid to synthesize aspirin in a form that could be easily swallowed. On the market for more than a century, the use of aspirin has been expanded to heart conditions and cancer prevention.
Last week, the Life Science Watch Solidarity, composed of civic groups, voiced its opposition to the stem cell research of Hwang Woo-suk and his team. The group claimed that the research procedure was ambiguous and there were concerns about side effects. Having gained national support so far, Mr. Hwang’s team has met an obstacle.
However, we should not judge rashly. Not all side effects are bad. We need to wait and see whether his human embryo research becomes a green light for conquering incurable diseases or turns out to be the second thalidomide of human society.

by Lee Chul-ho

The writer is a JoongAng Ilbo editorial writer.
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