BRIDGTON — A drug that gained infamy in the 1960s for causing thousands of birth defects is helping a local business owner deal with a deadly lung disease.
William Chalmers, co-owner of the Chalmers Insurance Group, participated in a recently-published study on the use of thalidomide to treat a dry, nagging cough that affects most people with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
Researchers warned Chalmers, 62, that there were risks to thalidomide, a drug released in 1957 as a painkiller and tranquilizer and was pulled from the market a few years later. Chalmers, who was first diagnosed with IPF in 2007, wasn’t deterred.
He and his brother Bruce are third-generation owners of the Chalmers Insurance Group. His job and his membership on several boards and industry groups requires public speaking often.
“I’m a business guy in the Western Maine area,” he said. “I have to do public speaking, I have to go to board meetings and so forth.” Speaking was getting increasingly difficult, and often he’d have a staff member speak for him.
The cough “is very persistent,” he said. He said the drug reduces his coughing by about 80 percent. “I’ll take that.”
His wife, Beverly, found out about the study when searching the Internet for clinic studies on IPF. They learned of the study, conducted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md., and enrolled.
He said he was a little nervous due to the drug’s reputation. “It’s a tough drug.”
He started the 24-week study in 2010. Of the 20 who completed the study, half took thalidomide for three months followed by three months with a placebo, with a two-week period between the two. The other subjects took the placebo first. The patients weren’t told which was which, but Chalmers said it was obvious to him that he received the drug first.
“When you go off the drug, you know exactly. You’re not receiving the benefits of the drug,” he said.
It was hard, but Chalmers said he understood the placebo period was part of the medical study, and the larger goal was to help the estimated 80,000 Americans with IPF.
IPF is a progressive and fatal disorder that causes lungs to become stiff and scarred. The cause is unknown, and the only cure is a lung transplant. The cough affects most people with IPF, and thalidomide may be the first treatment found to effectively reduce coughing.
“It’s made a tough disease tolerable,” Chalmers said. “There’s no cure for IPF. It’s kind of a one-way road, but this makes it a lot more tolerable and allows me to get up every day, go about my business and enjoy life.”
Dr. Maureen Horton, a pulmonary disease specialist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the lead author of the study and the lead researcher, has been studying IPF for years. She said similarities between IPF and multiple myeloma, for which thalidomide is an accepted treatment, led her to investigate using the drug to help IPF patients.
Horton and a team of researchers had their study published in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine on Sept. 18.
The drug isn’t available to the general public and hasn’t been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in treating IPF, but Chalmers and other study participants get it free from the manufacturer in exchange for their participation. According to Johns Hopkins, all 20 participants continue to use it today.
Thalidomide gained infamy when it was linked to birth defects, mainly children born with deficient or missing limbs. According to the FDA, more than 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with birth defects as a result of their mothers taking the drug.
The drug has seen a second life, and is prescribed for several diseases, including kidney cancer, multiple myeloma and leprosy. Thalidomide is prescribed only with strict controls. Men and women of child-bearing age, who are on the drug, are directed to use two forms of contraception.
Every month, Chalmers must take a survey stating that he hasn’t and won’t donate to a sperm bank or have sexual relations with a woman who could become pregnant.
Horton initiated the study and received funding from the Celgene Corp., which manufactures the drug. The drugmaker provided thalidomide and some funding for the study. She said it’s up to Celgene to pursue getting the drug approved by the FDA to treat IPF patients.
“It’s been a godsend for me,” Chalmers said. He credited his family for supporting him through it. “I have a really close family. They were really supportive, and also encouraging and helped me through that.”