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Blockbuster Botox's India connection

California-based Allergan's new prescription drug Lattise can make eyelashes grow longer, thicker and darker in 16 weeks for Rs 5,000 a month. Sanchita Sharma writes.

health and fitness Updated: Mar 13, 2011 00:36 IST
Sanchita Sharma

California-based Allergan's new prescription drug Lattise can make eyelashes grow longer, thicker and darker in 16 weeks for Rs 5,000 a month. All you have to do is apply it to the base of the upper eyelashes with a sterile, single-use disposable applicator. The drug is approved, safe with no side effects except for turning blue and green eyes browner, a problem dark-eyed Asians don't have to worry about.

Side effects usually break drugs, but in rare cases, also make fortunes. All it takes is alert scientists to spot the side effect needed from the not needed. And, voila, you are richer by a few millions, if not billions.

Unexpected side effects have worked wonders for Allergan. Lattise was developed when scientists discovered that Lumigan - eyedrops prescribed to lower eye pressure in people with the potentially-blinding condition called glaucoma - made eyelashes grow longer in a few weeks.

But the company's big success is Botox, its blockbuster wrinkle-killer that accounted for more than $1.3 billion of its $4.4 billion sales in 2010.

What very few people know is that Botox has an India connection: the man who headed the R&D at Allergen was Dr Balbir Brar, a toxicologist who trained in Punjab before moving to the US in 1975, where he headed drug safety research and development for Allergan from 1986 till he retired.

Brar was the man behind Botox and Lumigan, which have turned out to be money-spinners for a company that two decades ago was worth Rs-100 million and only known as a manufacturer of eye-care products.

Allergan first used a chemical called bimatoprost in 2001 in Lumigan to treat glaucoma, the second leading cause of preventable blindness in India after cataract. Brar recalls the excitement when users reported a side effect of long-term use: long and curly lashes. This prompted Allergan to get a patent for marketing bimatoprost as a eyelash growth cosmetic product.

Similarly, in 1989, Allergan started a small research project on Botox after researchers noticed that the botulinum neurotoxin that causes life-threatening food poisoning (botulism), also paralysed facial muscles of the people infected. This made droopy eyelids one of the early symptoms of infection, especially in children.

Since botulinum is the most potent neurotoxic known to man, Brar's mandate as the head of drug safety research was to do toxicity studies and develop safe doses for humans.

San Fransisco ophthalmologist Dr Alan Scott and Edward Schantz were the first to standardise botulinum for treatment in the 60s, but could get approval for using it to treat squints or crossed-eyes (strambismus) and uncontrollable blinking (blepharospasm) only in 1980.

It took Brar and his team eight years to develop a botulinum toxin type A dose small enough to paralyse, not kill, facial muscles and temporarily iron out wrinkles and crow's feet. Botox's effect lasts for three months, by the end of which the toxin is absorbed by the body and another round of injections have to be given.

Since Allergan got a patent on botulinum toxin type A for cosmetic purposes, it has been approved to treat severe underarm sweating, neck spasms, uncontrolled blinking , muscular spasm, movement disorders caused by stroke, Parkinson's or muscular dystropy, and most lately, migraines, among others.

Despite the ever-expanding disposable incomes and the global obsession with looking young, Allergan believes sales of Botox for medical uses will overtake its sales as a wrinkle-buster over the next few years.

Side effects include temporary headache and neck pain, but again, there is a bonus side effect for some: fewer wrinkles.