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Can Medicine Boost Female Sex Drive?

Drugmakers are testing new drugs that may be able to produce increased sexual desire in women.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

A drug to boost female sex drive could be worth billions to the company that manages to get it approved by the FDA. Recently, two new treatments have made strides towards that goal. But some are skeptical of the real value of such a drug to the women it's supposed to help.

In late 2004, FDA approval of Intrinsa, a testosterone patch for low female sex drive, seemed imminent. News reports heralded Intrinsa as a "Viagra for her," suggesting that it would revolutionize sexual health for women just as erectile dysfunction pills had for men.

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Except an FDA advisory panel saw things differently. Finding numerous problems with the evidence for the drug's effectiveness and safety, experts on the panel voted against approving it. Procter & Gamble, the company responsible for Intrinsa, withdrew its application. Procter & Gamble is a WebMD sponsor.

Now the frontrunner in the race to market the first prescription drug for low female sex drive is Boehringher-Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals. It has a drug called flibanserin in phase III clinical trials, the final phase of drug testing required for FDA approval. The company is a WebMD sponsor.

Flibanserin is a bit mysterious. It is a kind of antidepressant, but it hasn't been approved previously for any use. Boehringher-Ingelheim is saying little publicly about the drug. The company declined WebMD's request to interview a company representative, instead issuing a prepared statement. The statement does not explain how the drug is supposed to work, other than that "flibanserin is a molecule acting on the central nervous system and is not a hormone product."

Another drug, called bremelanotide, is in development for low female sex drive and male erectile dysfunction at the same time. Both potential uses are being tested in phase II clinical trials, which are early studies to assess how well a drug works and how safe it is.

Bremelanotide is a new chemical created in the laboratory. It's given in the form of a nasal spray, and it acts on the central nervous system.

"It's actually working in a region of the brain called the hypothalamus, which is known to be involved in sexual arousal in both men and women," says Carl Spana, PhD, CEO of Palatin Technologies, the company researching bremelanotide.

What Is Desire?

Arousal -- that is, erection -- is the goal of treatment for men. For women, researchers hope that ease of arousal will translate to increased sexual desire.

Technically, arousal and desire are not the same thing. Arousal is the physical and psychological state of being primed for sex. The penis becomes erect, the vagina lubricates, heart rate increases, and blood vessels dilate. Whereas arousal can be easily seen, sexual desire is vague. It has to do with wanting to become aroused, but there are a lot of questions about what that really means.

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