A new sex drug for women promises great pleasure in the world’s bedrooms — and terrific profits for its manufacturer Boehringer Ingelheim.
Women who took the medicine, known as flibanserin, reported 22 percent more “satisfying sexual events” than those given a placebo in two clinical tests of 1,378 North American patients, Boehringer said yesterday at the European Society for Sexual Medicine annual meeting in Lyon, France.
Pooled results from the two trials and a third European study show women who took the drug had more sex, wanted more sex and experienced less distress related to lack of desire. Boehringer plans to use the research to seek permission to sell the first female libido drug in the U.S. and Europe, potentially rekindling a debate that began a decade ago with the introduction of Pfizer Inc.’s Viagra on whether diminished desire is a legitimate medical condition.
“For everyone in this room, this is an historic event,” said Irwin Goldstein, a urologist and director of sexual medicine at Alvarado Hospital in San Diego, who has consulted for Boehringer in the past.
The drug works as a “dopamine agonist” which means it stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers. This is a type of drug the firm knows well from its best-selling product Mirapex, sold for use in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, in which a lack of dopamine production in the brain makes it difficult for patients to move smoothly and easily.
But jump-starting dopamine production can also produce some very weird side effects, as I learned when I wrote an investigative medical story on Mirapex for Chatelaine, Canada’s largest women’s magazine. These have included addictions to sex, gambling and shopping, all activities that are, for many people, an activity they turn to occasionally.
The three women I interviewed, all everyday, normal Canadians living quiet, middle-clsss lives in three major Canadian cities, saw their lives, finances and family relationships destroyed by their fiendish and uncontrollable addiction to gambling that began when they took this drug — and which stopped abruptly, and for good, when it left their system. Normally calm women working responsible jobs, some were, literally, being torn away from the slot machines at 3:00 a.m. by their distraught sons, daughters or husbands who simply couldn’t fathom why these previously loving, attentive women had become distant, deceptive compulsive spenders. They had no idea the little white pill they were taking, highly effective at controling the shakes of Parkinson’s or restless leg syndrome, was creating brain chemistry havoc.
The new drug uses a different compound, flibanserin:
Flibanserin works on the brain by putting “two feet on the brakes” to block the release of a chemical called serotonin, which regulates mood, appetite, sleep and memory, said Jim Pfaus, a neurologist at Concordia University in Montreal, who conducted early tests of the drug in rats. In time, the process should trigger the production of dopamine, a chemical that, among other jobs, helps stimulate desire.
The drug could be the first success after a series of failures from drugmakers including Procter & Gamble Co. and Pfizer. The New York-based maker of Viagra abandoned efforts to adapt its pill for women in 2004 and closed sex-health research at the end of last year.
The world’s largest closely held pharmaceutical company, Boehringer needs new drugs because it faces the loss of 1 billion euros ($1.5 billion) in annual revenue when two older medicines, Mirapex for Parkinson’s disease and Flomax to treat enlarged prostate, lose patent protection next year.