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From toxin to treatment: the origins of Botox and other common medicines.

February 27, 2017

 

There are many medicines on the market today that are derived from nature. Some of these are considered poisonous to humans but when advantageous side effects were observed, they have been manipulated for use as safe medical treatments. Botox, Penicillin, Warfarin, Digoxin and statins are just some examples. Their illustrious history from toxin to treatment shows the ingenuity of the medical community in developing treatments from otherwise hazardous substances.

 

Botulinum toxin or 'Botox' is made from the purified neurotoxin Clostridium botulinum. The botulinum toxin binds to receptors in the muscles, preventing the flow of minerals that cause muscle contractions. The muscles therefore don't respond to signals to contract. This means less frowning and less lines. The effect lasts as long as it takes new receptors to be formed so that the signal to contract can once again reach the muscles.Clostridium botulinum is found in the soil, dust and poorly preserved foods like home-canned goods such as honey and pickled fish. The disease botulism can result from eating these contaminated foods. Botulism results in muscle weakness and this can spread to the lungs causing breathing problems. Botulism is treated with an antitoxin and is rarely fatal.

 

Botulinum toxin has been used since the 1960s when a team of husband and wife doctors discovered its cosmetic use. Jean Carruthers, an eye doctor and her husband Alastair, a skin doctor shared the same clinic. Jean used to treat the spasming around her patients eyes with botulinum. One patient became upset when her forehead was not treated due to lack of spasming. When this was explained to the patient, the patient said that her wrinkles disappeared when her forehead was treated and she really liked the side effect. When Jean told her husband the story, he was excited to try it on some of his patients. Most initially responded with concern about botulinum being injected into their faces, but as time went on the wrinkling reducing effects became a massive hit! 

 

So although Botox is technically a poison, it has been used for many years and deemed safe for certain medical treatments. Other common treatments such as penicillin which is used to treat a host of infections such as pneumonia has been produced from a fungus, Penicillin chrysogenum, since 1941.  Alexander Fleming famously discovered the mold's bacteria killing properties when he returned from a summer vacation to find his lab at St Mary's Hospital in London very musty and mold had formed on some of his bacteria experiments. When he looked under the microscope he noticed that bacteria wasn't growing near the mold and the idea for a bacteria killing treatment was born! After many years of formulating the fungus, penicillin is now available in antibiotics such as Co-Amoxiclav and Augmentin.

 

Statins used to treat high cholesterol are also made from another soil inhabiting fungus, Aspergillus terreus. The deadly nightshade or belladonna plant has also been used to manufacture the drug Atropine, which is used to treat slow heart rates and is sometimes used in cardiac arrests. This drug was used in ancient Egypt as a beauty treatment as one of the side effects is dilated or large pupils, which was considered very desirable back then!

 

The poisonous digitalis or Foxglove plant has likewise been used to produce Digoxin, a drug used to improve the heart's beating and control the speed of the heart beat. The plant is poisonous and if eaten often causes diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. Long term ingestion of large amounts can cause a yellow haze to form over your vision. Many people believe the painter Vincent Van Gogh's 'Yellow Period' which includes the famous Sunflowers painting, was a result of a  yellow haze over his vision after he used the plant to treat his seizures.

 

The anticoagulant Warfarin which is used to thin the blood and prevent clots and strokes  

 was first marketed for commercial use as rat poison! The blood thinning properties were discovered after someone swallowed a large amount of the rat poison. Since 1954 those blood thinning properties were used for medical purposes and until recently Warfarin was the most prescribed blood thinner worldwide. The drug was initially manufactured from a plant molecule coumarin found in small quantities in plants such as lavender and licourice. Once the blood thinning properties were discovered, further research was done by the  Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, until the medicinal product was produced. The trade name 'warfarin' comes from the acronym WARF, for Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and the ending -arin indicating its link with coumarin. 

 

So even though many people react badly to the idea of a Botox treatment, most people at some point in their lives will receive treatment from a 'poison' whose serendipitous side effects have been used to alter and improve the lives of patients worldwide. 

 

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