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Pharma desire for "female Viagra" excites passion

LONDON (Reuters) - Ever since the explosion of the male impotence drug Viagra onto the global pharmaceutical market, drugmakers have yearned to find an equivalent for women.

The little blue pill made by U.S. drugs giant Pfizer PFE.N revolutionized many men's otherwise lackluster sex lives, and the chance that a similar pill could do the same for female libido has dollar signs flashing in drug developers' eyes.

Yet the strength of desire expressed by the current leader in this race, Germany’s Boehringer Ingelheim and its experimental drug flibanserin, is exciting passions of a different kind among some women’s health experts.

A Boehringer-funded survey released last week sought to show the emotional impact and distress caused by low sexual desire.

But it angered critics, who say it is evidence of the firm’s bid to market low female libido as a disorder, which threaten to pigeonhole the problem and make women feel deficient.

“The idea that a lack of interest in sex should be immediately approached with a pill means the multiple contributory factors to sexual problems may well be missed -- resulting in any medication being largely ineffective,” said Lisa Martinez, founder of the Women’s Sexual Health Foundation, an international advocacy group based in the United States.

“A medication may be the right treatment, but it may not, depending on what is truly the cause of the low desire. If a woman is exhausted and stressed and needs help taking care of the children, a pill is not the answer. The answer is to minimize the exhaustion and to get help with the children.”

Boehringer says it happened upon the libido effects of flibanserin, a serotonin modulator, while investigating the chemical as an anti-depressant.

Labeling LOW LIBIDO

Martinez and others are worried about the over-medicalization of sex -- a phenomenon which could drown modern bedrooms with patented pills, potions and creams.

U.S. drug firm BioSante BPAX.O, which is also working on treatments to boost low desire in women, reckons the potential market for female sexual dysfunction in the U.S. alone could be worth more than $2 billion in annual sales.

Part of the process of capturing that market is the labeling of symptoms that have lurked for generations, defining them in clinical terms and hence making them more likely to be seen as requiring a clinical response.

An example of this came last week when Boehringer released data from a European survey -- called Desire and its Effects on Female Sexuality Including Relationships or DESIRE -- which it said showed women with low libido and associated distress suffered personal, emotional impact from their sexual problems.

Alongside the survey was an announcement from a U.S. commercial research organization that it was setting up a “register of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD)” to help scientists better understand female sexual health problems.

Sheryl Kingsberg, a professor in reproductive biology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said in a commentary on the survey that it was important for women’s lack of desire to be given recognition.

“Many of the women I see with HSDD experience a high level of guilt and feelings of confusion,” she wrote. “They also complain about the distance they feel between themselves and their partner. The emotional impact of HSDD is significant.”

FEMINIST DISCOURSE?

But Petra Boynton, a social psychologist at University College London, questioned the study and its findings, noting that it approached over 60,000 women across Europe but only 11 percent were classed as having a problem, and that was after responding to what she said were “leading” diagnostic questions.

“Unfortunately with this study, and many others like it, the tools used are designed specifically for the drug funded research,” she told Reuters. “Getting hold of actual surveys is very difficult and sharing of research information -- something that is usually standard scientific practice -- is limited.”

Boynton accused the drug industry of seeking to “reclaim a feminist discourse” by arguing that women’s sexuality has been largely ignored by scientific research, and their efforts are redressing the balance.

“In truth there is lots of detailed and interesting research on women’s sexuality that specifically addresses the many issues that may cause low sexual desire -- like pregnancy, menopause, bereavement, divorce, a lack of privacy, or poor body image.

“It is completely wrong to set this up as a ‘battle of the sexes debate’ or imply women aren’t studied, or that female sexuality isn’t interesting.”

Yet such concerns are unlikely to dampen desire among drugmakers to define, and then seek to treat, low female libido.

Besides Boehringer’s big hope flibanserin -- which in a six-month trial increased the number of satisfying sexual events to an average 4.5 per month from 2.8 in American women, compared with an average of 3.7 for those taking placebo -- there are trials looking at the effects of a testosterone skin gel Libigel, from BioSante, on women’s desire. [ID:nSGE61L0J3]

And Procter & Gamble's PG.N Intrinsa testosterone patches are already licensed for female sexual dysfunction in Europe but not in the U.S., where a regulatory panel voted against them in 2004, citing lack of evidence for their long-term safety.

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