New Research From Harvard Looks at Botox Safety

Botox is being used to treat everything from headaches to excessive sweating, and Harvard is studying its safety.

Woman getting a shot photo via Shutterstock

Woman getting a shot photo via Shutterstock

With all the new studies out on Botox—it treats depression!—and what it does besides smooth wrinkles—it stops excessive sweating!—and sometimes give people a Joker/duck face—it can treat overactive bladder!—we knew it was only a matter of time before some harsher light was shed on the toxin. Because that is what it is after all, a toxin. Botulinum toxins are a food poison and bioterror threat. Just a small amount of the toxin can block signals from nerve cells that control muscles and people die when the toxin paralyzes the muscles they need to breathe.

According to new research from Harvard Medical School, there are seven major botulinum types. Type A and B are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for therapeutic and cosmetic uses, but other types are being explored as well. Harvard researchers investigated the effect that all seven toxins have on neurons and discovered that not all are safe.

The study, recently published in Nature Communications, reports that two of the seven botulinum toxins, type C and type E, induce degeneration of both cultured rodent neurons and human motor neurons derived from embryonic stem cells. The studies lead author is quoted:

“Botulinum toxins are not expected to cause death of neurons if they just block signals between neurons and muscles, which is the well-established mode of action for this class of toxins,” said Min Dong, HMS independent instructor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology and the Division of Neuroscience at the New England Primate Research Center, and senior author of the paper. “It has been observed since as early as the 1980s that neurons die after exposure to type C toxin. The mechanism remains a mystery, but it raises a red flag as to whether botulinum toxins may affect additional neuronal functions.”

The findings on Botox, or type A, are more complicated, according to the study. Botox attacks but does not induce death of neurons. Clinical data has also demonstrated that Botox is safe for neuron survival in patients. But the safety of type A toxin is not absolute, the scientists found. Dong also says that:

“Botox is safe in general,” Dong said, “but it can cause the death of neurons when we introduce mutations in SNAP-25 in our experiments. Whether this can occur in rare cases in patients needs to be studied further.”

The bottom line is that Botox is approved by the FDA and one of the cosmetic industries biggest cash cows. Botox sales were $475 million in Allergan’s (the maker of Botox) fourth quarter alone. And with new research coming out everyday on Botox treating everything from chronic migraines to bladder problems, let’s hope that all the new research is good news.