A New Wrinkle

CALS research launches a rival to BoTox.

To microbiologist Eric Johnson, it’s a second chance at the one that got away.

In the mid-1980s, UW-Madison missed a chance to license the technology behind BoTox, the wildly popular treatment used to erase wrinkles and ease muscle spasms. Based on techniques developed by the late Ed Schantz BS’31 PhD’39, Johnson’s mentor and longtime collaborator at CALS’ Food Research Institute, BoTox now generates an estimated $1 billion in annual sales.

Now, California-based Mentor Corporation may help ease the pain of missing the BoTox boom. The company has licensed new technology developed by Johnson and other FRI scientists to produce PurTox, an anti-wrinkle product that would compete head-to-head with BoTox. Mentor is building a new production facility in Madison’s University Research Park to make PurTox, which is currently in clinical trials, and other botulinum-related pharmaceuticals, which involve injecting tiny doses of the poison into the skin to freeze nerve endings.

“They already have a sales force calling on the right customers,” says John Hardiman, a licensing manager with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which negotiated the deal. “They’re well positioned to (take the botulinum product) to the same market.”

Schantz helped pioneer therapeutic work with botulinum toxin, the deadliest natural poison known. In the 1980s, he and San Francisco ophthalmologist Allan Scott showed how small doses of the toxin could be used to relax muscles in the treatment of certain eye disorders. Schantz approached WARF about patenting his technology for purifying the toxin, but the agency passed, leaving Scott to license the technology to Allergan, Inc.

Since then, Johnson has continued Schantz’s work, developing new strains and exploring new applications for the toxin. He and three colleagues have founded Metabiologics, a company that supplies botulinum toxin to researchers and vaccine manufacturers around the world. A vaccine made from their product was used recently to stem a major botulism outbreak in Thailand, Johnson says.

While none of this work takes away the regret of passing on BoTox, Johnson says the decision was understandable at the time. “You have to realize the times back then,” he says. “The idea of the most poisonous substance ever known being used as a pharmaceutical? It seemed like a real stretch.”