Botox is a neurotoxic drug produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum that is known for use in cosmetic surgery to reduce wrinkles on the face and prevent aging. In fact, as of December 2013, Botox has been identified as the most common plastic surgery procedure in the United States (New York Post, “Botox losing face amid celeb backlash,” 12.16.13). Many celebrities, such as Bruce Jenner and Lindsay Lohan, have been publicly mocked for using the drug to try to alter their appearances. Even Vassar alum Meryl Streep ’71 has spoken about the cosmetic surgery to the NY Post, saying, “I really understand the chagrin that accompanies aging, especially for a woman, but I think people look funny when they freeze their faces.”
Conversely, Botox has recently been found useful in medical conditions not related to cosmetic surgery. In an August 2013 article of Science Daily, Dr. Matthew Kircher of Loyola University Medical Center was recognized for finding that Botox could be used to treat disorders that arise in patients with Bell’s palsy, a condition that causes paralysis and unwanted movements of facial muscles (“Botox not just for wrinkles,” 08.27.13). Often with Bell’s palsy, when a patient moves part of their face, such as in order to blink, the mouth will move in an uncontrollable manner, causing an unwanted spasm. Dr. Kircher uses the drug in an effort to improve symmetry of the face and prevent this extra movement. However, Dr. Kircher does warn that Botox is not a cure and only lasts about three or four months before another dosage is needed. Even with the lack of continuity, Dr. Kircher seems optimistic about his discovery, saying, “While we can never make the face perfect, we have found Botox to be extremely effective, [and] it can make a huge difference in patients’ lives.”
Another recent study, conducted by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), has found that Botox may be an effective drug for weight-loss (Science Daily, “Fighting fat with Botox”, 10.4.13). The main researcher on this project was Helene Johannessen, a PHD candidate at NTNU. Johannessen had injected Botox directly in the vagus nerve of rats, hoping to paralyze them. The vagus nerve extends from the brain to the abdomen and coveys bodily information; paralyzing this nerve would cause the food to remain in the stomach a bit longer, slowing digestion and food passage. The rats that had been injected were observed to eat less and lost 20 to 30 percent of their body weight over the five-week observational period. At this time, Johannessen is waiting on approval from the Norwegian medical ethics authorities to give approval to begin human clinical trials. For the trials, Johannessen has stated she is looking for particular participants, saying, “As a start, we will be inviting patients who are candidates for obesity operations but who, for one reason or another, cannot undergo [them].”
However, I believe that Johnannessen’s experimental period on rats is not long enough to justify grounds for human testing quite yet. The testing period of five weeks does not allow us to see long-term effects that the Botox has on the vagus nerve. In my opinion, too little is known about the effects of this drug for clinical trials. However, with more research and investigation of long-term effects, Botox could be used as an alternative weight-loss method. I just think it is important to know the risks for this method—if any—before clinical trials begin so that participants know exactly what they are getting into.
So why should you care about this? While Botox may not be affecting you or anyone you know at this moment in a medical manner, it could be possible that in the next five to ten years, Botox will be life changing. And who knows, maybe even more researchers will find ways to manipulate this neurotoxic drug to find beneficial cures and remedies.
—Delaney Fischer ’15 is a neuroscience major.