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Sure to Please Wall Street

Selling One Pill to Treat Side Effects of Another Pill

by MARTHA ROSENBERG

Nearly one in four US women is on antidepressants. The drugs, like Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, may be happy pills but they are not happy-in-the-bedroom pills. Both older and newer antidepressants cause severe sexual dysfunction like diminished libido and anorgasmia, the inability to achieve orgasm, even with adequate stimulation.

Antidepressant sexual dysfunction is so common, it is used as a sales pitch by the drug manufacturers. “Wellbutrin X works for my depression with a low risk of weight gain and sexual side effects,” say glossy magazine ads showing young men whose sexuality is intact thanks to a better antidepressant. “Can your medicine do all that?” One study found 96 percent patients on a particular antidepressant developed anorgasmia. Who likes those statistics?

Now, marketers of two new sex drugs for women are acknowledging how many women are actually on antidepressants. A Dutch company developing the female libido drugs, Lybrido and Lybridos (which are not yet FDA approved or available) believes the drugs may help the antidepressant-related sexual problems, according to an article in the New York Times magazine. Lybrido contains two possible libido enhancers for women, testosterone and sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. But Lybridos contains testosterone and the antidepressant buspirone, a drug already on the market and known to reverse the negative sexual side effects of antidepressants in some cases by modifying changed levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin that cause the sexual dysfunction.

Buspirone is similar to a “female Viagra” drug that almost reached the market a few years ago. Flibanserin, made by the German company Boehringer Ingelheim, was intended to treat “hypoactive sexual desire disorder” in women but rejected by the FDA. Flibanserin was similar to the antidepressant Serzone which is linked to hyper sexual arousal and the abnormal and painful erectile state known as priapism. Serzone has been withdrawn from markets.

Like Viagra (which had been intended to be an angina drug until its erectile effects appeared) flibanserin, the drug rejected three years ago, was groomed to be an antidepressant drug until its effect on female sexual desire surfaced. Some trial participants did not want to surrender their unused pills at the end of the study. But, despite medical and media excitement about flibanserin and pleas from Big Pharma, Wall Street, husbands, boyfriends and women, the FDA rejected flibanserin in 2010–not for its side effects like dizziness, nausea and sleepiness but because it didn’t seem to work.

Thanks to Big Pharma marketing, Americans increasingly seek a quick fix for “depression,” “sexual dysfunction” and other lifestyle problems. Before direct to consumer marketing of antidepressants, people did not expect to be deliriously happy for no reason or term their problems with marriages and relationships, jobs, health and money, “depression.” Medicalizing lifestyle problems is a cash cow for Big Pharma because advertising works.

Of course, there is no assurance that Lybrido and Lybridos will be approved by the FDA or gain acceptance among doctors and women. But if they do, Big Pharma’s audacious business model of selling one expensive pill to treat side effects of another expensive pill will surely please Wall Street.

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).