Can a bad anti-depressant be a good sex aid?

Summary:A lot of the media is touting this as "female Viagra," but it's really no such thing. Viagra makes sex possible. Flibanserin just seems to make it desirable.

It's a great example of how drug companies try to turn their lemons into lemonade.

Flibanserin was developed by a German company, Boehringer Ingelheim, originally as an anti-depressant. You may have never heard of Boehringer, but it's an old name in the drug game, producing such common drugs as Dulcolax, Flomax, Spiriva, and Zantac, among others.

Flibanserin failed its trials as an anti-depressant, but when the company asked test subjects to return the unused portion, patients were reluctant. (The 2001 movie Serendipity starred John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale.)

So, like any good drug maker Boehringer tried, tried again. What the University of North Carolina now reports is that it increases a woman's sex drive.

A lot of the media is touting this as "female Viagra," but it's really no such thing. Viagra makes sex possible. Flibanserin just seems to make it desirable. Boehringer funded the UNC study.

The analogy was used by obstetrics professor John Thorp in his press release because the discovery was based on serendipity. (Hence the movie reference.) Viagra was a failed heart medicine, just as flibanserin was a failed anti-depressant, until the drug-maker found its other potential.

Research indicates as many as 10-25% of all women suffer from low sexual desire. Until now testosterone patches were the drug of choice, but that's the male hormone, and results in male-like side effects.

Flibanserin seems to attack the problem from the mind, from the inside-out. The latest study tested it on women diagnosed with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder,  a clinical condition not easily distinguished from depression. Some women have it for their whole lives, others acquire it. The diagnosis dates from 1977.

In the study, almost 2,000 sufferers were given either the drug or a placebo. A dose of 100 milligrams per day was considered effective. Success was measured through a Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI) and the reports of participants.

This does not mean women are going to be popping flibanserin like men pop Viagra. Anti-depressants must be taken daily, and over time, not just when you want a little action.

At this point Boerhringer may seek a license to sell it only as a cure for the condition against which it was tested, and patients would require a specific diagnosis to be prescribed.

This is a psychological story, not a nudge-nudge story.

This post was originally published on

Topics: Innovation


Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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