Botox Manufacturer: $600 Million Poorer, But closer to New Uses

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Recently unemployed Larisa Erwin gets free Botox injections from Dr. Shannan Ginnan at Reveal in Arlington, Virginia, June 5, 2009. The company offered free Botox to the first 50 recently unemployed, active job seekers and an opportunity to meet with recruiters and get some employment tips. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES SOCIETY EMPLOYMENT BUSINESS IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Allergan, the maker of Botox, will pay $600 million in fines and civil settlements after pleading guilty to marketing their product for uses for which it hasn’t been FDA approved. The Justice Department accused Allergan of encouraging doctors to use the powerful neurotoxin through kickbacks and by teaching them how to forge drug reports.

“The FDA had approved therapeutic uses of Botox for only four rare conditions, yet Allergan made it a top corporate priority to maximize sales of far more lucrative off-label uses that were not approved by the FDA,” U.S. Attorney Sally Yates told the AP.

Botox is most famous for its use by dermatologists to temporarily diminish the appearance of facial wrinkles, but the drug, which is scientifically known as Botulinum toxin and works by temporarily paralyzing nerves, has been approved for rare conditions like eye muscle spasms since 1989.  In March, the FDA approved Botox use to treat muscle spasms in elbow, wrist and finger injuries among adults.

According to the suit, Allergan paid doctors millions and taught them how to miscode the drug to avoid being caught, all so that they would use Botox for “off-label” treatments – uses for which it has never been approved, though it may be effective. Botox was promoted for migraine relief and juvenile cerebral palsy, for which observational data suggests it is effective.

When a drug has been approved for a certain medical use, it cannot be marketed to treat other uses, even if patients report those other uses as a side benefit. Still, marketing drugs for side benefits is common. In 2008, Bayer ran afoul of the FDA when it over-emphasized the acne reducing benefits of its popular birth control pill, Yaz.

Though off-label usage is legal and often beneficial for patients, it can be dangerous. In April 2009, after repeated reports of side effects among children with cerebral palsy that mimicked botulism poisoning, the FDA ordered Botox to carry “black box labeling,” the strictest possible warning for a product.  Doctors reported respiratory problems, muscle weakness, loss of bladder control and double vision among their young patients, along with hospitalizations.

Currently, the FDA is reviewing Allergan’s application to approve Botox for migraine headaches. The agency is not reviewing information on juvenile cerebral palsy and no known tests are in the works, though CBS is reporting that Botox is being tested in countries like India, Poland, Serbia and Turkey for a host of ailments, including Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, excessive perspiration, depression and something called “curvature of the penis.”

If any of these studies abroad provide conclusive data, they could potentially spur bids for approval of new uses of Botox in the United States.