Controversy: The involvement of Ciba AG in the development of Thalidomide

In the early 1960s, the thalidomide disaster became a scientific fact. Following the introduction of a ‘novel’ tranquilizer, which was also used to treat nausea and ‘morning sickness,’ many pregnant women started taking the drug. The result was that between 1956 and 1962, their children were born with severely malformed limbs and organs, especially phocomelia.

While most sources include the Swiss pharmaceutical company Ciba AG (Now part of Novartis) in the thalidomide saga, there is al lot of controversy surrounding the company’s role in the development of the drug.

Frederick F. Yonkman, MD, Ph.D, Vice-president in charge of research and CIBA Pharmaceutical Products, Inc. (Photo Courtesy: 1958; U.S. National Library of Medicine).

A review of the available historical records shows that the majority of resources referring to Ciba as the first company to synthesize thalidomide, are either anecdotal or cannot be independently confirmed. Contrary to the belief that Ciba was involved, verifiable records indicated that the origin of thalidomide is linked to a secret past with Nazi Germany.[1] In addition, indirect evidence points to Hitler’s war machine as the origin of thalidomide. Following WWII, camp survivors of Bergen-Belsen told stories of babies being born without arms and legs, pointing to the possible use of drugs similar to thalidomide.

Chemie Grünenthal
Despite the ongoing rumors involving Ciba, the German company Chemie Grünenthal GmbH, based in Stolberg near Aachen (Germany) synthesized phthalimidoglutarimide (soon abbreviated to thalidomide) in 1954 and acquired a twenty-year patent for the drug. In April of that year, immediately following patent application Chemie Grünenthal started clinical trials and began aggressively marketing the drug.[5]

Today, it has become evidently clear that, in the immediate postwar years, a number rogue, wanted and convicted Nazis, mass murderers who had practiced their science in notorious death camps including Bergen-Belsen, ended up working at Chemie Grünenthal. Some of these ’employees’ were directly involved in the development of thalidomide. They offered offer knowledge, skills, and expertise in drug development based practices developed during WWII, in what can be said no civilized society would ever condone. It was in this company of unscrupulous men, indifferent to suffering and believers in a wretched, immoral, philosophy that life is cheap, that Chemie Grünenthal developed, manufactured and marketed thalidomide to unknowing victims.

No role for Ciba
Concerning the role of Ciba, in the August 18, 1962, issue of JAMA – The Journal of the American Medical Society, Frederick F. Yonkman, M.D., Ph.D. (photo), at that time Vice President in charge of research at Ciba Pharmaceutical Products, Inc. in Summit, New Jersey, the US subsidiary of Ciba AG, comments on an article by Helen B. Taussig, M.D. (A Study of the German Outbreak of Phocomelia)? in which he states that Ciba AG was never involved in? synthesizing nor the production of thalidomide.[2][3][4]

In this letter, Yonkman writes: “In the June 30, 1962, issue of JAMA there appears a special communication, “A Study of the German Outbreak of Phocomelia,” by Helen B. Taussig, M.D., on which we would like to comment. This relates to the statement beginning on page 1108: “Thalidomide is a synthetic drug which, as the story is told in West Germany, was first conceived and made by Ciba and found by them to have no effect on animals;…” The story heard by Dr. Taussig is not accurate, since Ciba neither conceived nor made thalidomide and was never associated with its clinical investigation.”

Yonkman further writes: “Our final comment concerns the statement on page 1113: “The only drug with which I am familiar which is similar to Contregan is glutethimide (Doriden). Although in a few instances a history of glutethimide, not Contergan, has been obtained, glutethimide has been widely used in Switzerland since 1955 and phocomelia was not known until 1961 and then only in a few cases were seen and in most instances, a history of Contergan was obtained.” As Dr. Taussig points out, during the 6 years glutethimide was used in Switzerland before the introduction of thalidomide, there were no instances of phocomelia. This experience has been confirmed in the United States. Approximately one billion tablets of glutethimide. have been distributed in the United States over a period of more than 7 years, and no case of associated phocomelia has been reported. Neither experimentally nor clinically is glutethimide teratogenic.”

In the same issue of JAMA, Taussig confirms that the link with Ciba AG is anecdotal. She writes: “In my recent article I purposely said “as the story was told” because I had neither proof nor denial of the story. I shall be glad to correct my statement in subsequent reports.” And concerning the link between glutethimide and Contergan, she further confirms that while 2 or 3 European physicians emphasized to her that in certain cases a history of glutethimide, not Contergan, was obtained, these cases were not checked by prescription.[2][3]

For more information
[1] Thalidomide’s Secret Past: The Link with Nazi Germany. Onco’Zine – The International Oncology Network [Article]
[2] Taussig HB. A study of the German outbreak of phocomelia. The thalidomide syndrome. JAMA. 1962 Jun 30;180:1106-14.?PMID: 13919869 [PubMed][Article][JAMA]
[3] Yonkman FF. Thalidomide and Related Compounds. JAMA.1962;181(7):654.[Article]
[4] Reversal of Fortune: How a Vilified Drug Became a Life-saving Agent in the “War” Against Cancer. Onco’Zine – The International Oncology Network [Article]
[5] Thalidomide: In the Shadow of Death – Onco’Zine – The International Oncology Network [Article]

Photo: Frederick F. Yonkman, M.D., Ph.D., Vice-President in Charge of CIBA Pharmaceutical Products, Inc. Source: National Institute of Health (Images from the History of Medicine). Historical photos used in Onco’Zine are used with permission based on fair use as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. Reproduction in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, for educational purposes only.