Thalidomide for erythema nodosum leprosum and other applications

Pharmacotherapy. 2003 Apr;23(4):481-93. doi: 10.1592/phco.23.4.481.32115.


Thalidomide, administered as a sedative and antiemetic decades ago, was considered responsible for numerous devastating cases of birth defects and consequently was banned from markets worldwide. However, the drug remarkably has resurfaced with promise of immunomodulatory benefit in a wide array of immunologic disorders for which available treatments were limited. It is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for erythema nodosum leprosum (ENL). Although the relative paucity of leprosy and ENL worldwide may perceivably limit interest in and knowledge about thalidomide, increasing numbers of new and potential uses expand its applicability widely beyond ENL. Thalidomide, an inhibitor of tumor necrosis factor a, is the best known agent for short-term treatment of ENL skin manifestations, as well as postremission maintenance therapy to prevent recurrence. For this indication, it is effective as monotherapy and as part of combination therapy with corticosteroids. Studies of thalidomide in chronic graft-versus-host disease showed benefit in children and adults as treatment, but not as prophylaxis. The agent has been administered successfully for treatment of cachexia related to cancer, tuberculosis, and human immunodeficiency virus infection, although evidence of efficacy is inconclusive. Thalidomide monotherapy effectively induced objective response in trials in patients with both newly diagnosed and advanced or refractory multiple myeloma. Combination therapy with thalidomide and corticosteroids was also effective in these patients, as well as in treatment of aphthous and genital ulcers. Limited evidence supports the drug's benefit in treatment of Kaposi's sarcoma. Other thalidomide applications include Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Somnolence, constipation, and rash were the most frequently cited adverse effects in studies, but thalidomide-induced neuropathy and idiopathic thromboembolism were critical causes for drug discontinuation. Thalidomide is still contraindicated in pregnant women, women of childbearing age, and sexually active men not using contraception. Clinicians should be conversant with thalidomide in ENL (its primary application) in the natural course of leprosy, as well as in the agent's other applications.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cachexia / drug therapy
  • Erythema Nodosum / drug therapy*
  • Graft vs Host Disease / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Leprosy, Lepromatous / drug therapy*
  • Multiple Myeloma / drug therapy
  • Patient Education as Topic / methods
  • Sarcoma, Kaposi / drug therapy
  • Thalidomide / adverse effects
  • Thalidomide / therapeutic use*


  • Thalidomide