Dec. 29, 2008 -- Some people might look at Meiko Catron, a native of Japan, and find her tilted eyes exotic and attractive. But 61-year-old Catron, who lives in St. Louis, finds them lacking.
"I have a great head of hair, but the eyelashes are so short," Catron said.
That changed in the eight-month period during which she participated in a clinical trial to test a drug that glaucoma patients have used for almost a decade to stave off blindness. Catron has never been diagnosed with glaucoma; instead, she may be among the first to use this drug for its unusual side effect.
"My eyelashes were so much longer," Catron said. "I just couldn't believe it. I never ever, ever had long eyelashes."
Allergan, the pharmaceutical company that also manufactures Botox, conducted the trial Catron participated in to test Latisse, a variation of Lumigan, Allergan's glaucoma drug, and its effectiveness as a lash enhancer. The Food and Drug Administration approved Latisse earlier this month.
Dr. Scott Whitcup, Allergan's executive vice president of research and development, said researchers at Allergan noted the eyelash-enhancing side effects of Lumigan eye drops during the phase three trials for the drug.
"At the time, we began thinking of developing Lumigan as a treatment for eyelash growth," Whitcup said.
A Familiar Story
Like Lumigan and its active ingredient bimatoprost, many medicines or medical treatments can get a second life if their side effects are found practical, useful or desirable.
Botox, a paralytic agent, was originally approved by the FDA in 1989 to treat nerve spasms, particularly around the eye, which caused crossed eyes or uncontrollable blinking. But users discovered their skin showed fewer wrinkles after the injections and the FDA approved Botox for cosmetic use in 2002.
But the secondary effects of some other treatments turned out to be less than desirable.
Known as "the Barbie pill," Melanotan II was supposed to be a body-trimming wonder drug that killed appetite and increased libido. The drug was initially developed to combat skin cancer by increasing levels of melanin, the skin pigments that naturally protect the body from sunlight.
But some users reported more freckling and darker moles after use, a potential problem for those who may have been trying to monitor their skin for signs of cancer. The drug was never studied thoroughly.
Another treatment called Lipodissolve was a controversial treatment that claimed to "melt" fat through a series of injections under the skin. The drug cocktail used in the injection was a combination developed to treat blood disorders by breaking down blood fats.
The drug cocktail was never approved by the FDA and the treatment was not intended to break down large amounts of body fat. People who received the injections reported a variety of negative effects, including infections and chronic pain.
Lashes for Days?
But most doctors are not concerned about the potential side effects of daily Latisse application on the eyes. The most noticeable side effects that can occur include a gradual darkening of the iris, the colored portion of the eye, as well as a darkening of the skin around the eyes where the drug may come in contact with the skin.
But these side effects don't always occur and may disappear if the drug is discontinued, Whitcup said. Also, the bimatoprost concentration in Latisse is significantly less than that of Lumigan and instead of being put directly on the eye, it is applied to the base of the lashes.
Bimatoprost reduces pressure within the eye to prevent optic nerve damage in glaucoma patients, but doctors say small quantities of the drug should not be a problem for the normal eye.
"We can all live with a little lower pressure," said Dr. Andrea Thau, a spokeswoman for the American Optometric Association and associate professor at the SUNY State College of Optometry. "[Bimatoprost] has an excellent safety profile."
Still, the eyelash-enhancing effects of Latisse is not permanent. Because the drug works by keeping hairs in their growth phase -- the phase during which hairs become longer, thicker and darker -- lashes return to their normal, genetically determined length within a few months after discontinuing the drug.
And, at $120 for a 30-day supply, Latisse is not cheap.
But some say that in the current economic climate, a noninvasive enhancer like Latisse could be far more desirable to those who want to invest in beauty treatments than more expensive, more dangerous surgical procedures such as liposuction or other cosmetic surgeries.
"Regardless of the economy, people still want to look their best," said Dr. Malcolm Z. Roth, director of plastic surgery at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. He noted that people could be concerned about paying for expensive surgical procedures if they have a heavy mortgage or have little job security and can't take the time off.
Catron plans on making room in her budget for Latisse treatments when it becomes available to consumers early next year.
"What girls don't want more?" she said.