Noven and P&G Try "Viagra for Women" Despite History of Failure

Last Updated Aug 22, 2008 7:02 PM EDT

Yet another company is taking a crack at the "Viagra for women" concept. This time it is Noven Pharmaceuticals, which has licensed its testosterone-based skin patch to Procter & Gamble. The companies did not disclose the terms of the deal.

The move is an interesting one for two reasons. First, P&G has already dipped a toe in this market before and largely failed to, um, excite anyone. Second, the female sex-drive-booster category is an historic graveyard of failed products. In other words, P&G ought to know better.

On paper, the idea is fabulous: Viagra was an astonishing success, but it tapped only half the market -- men. Could it be repeated in the better/other half? But let's look at the history. Back in 2004, P&G made its first attempt at a libido-enhancer for women with a product called Intrinsa, licensed from Watson Pharmaceuticals. The FDA rejected it and it hasn't been seen since. Watson no longer mentions the product on its web site.

Although P&G maintains a web site for Intrinsa in foreign countries the company doesn't mention sales of Intrinsa in either its most recent quarterly or annual report. And I cannot remember an occasion on which my European buddies have ever joked about having an "Intrinsa moment." The foregoing strongly suggests that this business is -- irony alert! -- a modest one. And until very recently, the Noven project was on hold at P&G, according to Noven's own site.

Elsewhere, the pursuit of the female Viagra was most recently investigated by Pfizer, which funded a study of women taking Viagra. The study found that among women whose ability to orgasm had been affected by antidepressants, using Viagra helped the situation. However, the study has a number of problems, most importantly that it is tiny. Pfizer says it has no intention of pressing the FDA for a women's indication for the drug.

Like Noven/P&G, BioSante Pharmaceuticals is also working the testosterone skin patch idea. It claims that "[p]hase II trial results showed LibiGel significantly increased the number of satisfying sexual events by 238%" and says it expects approval in 2011. So at the very least, P&G has waited too long to get the category to itself -- a key element of the Viagra business miracle.

Other topical solutions have been tried by QualiLife Pharmaceuticals, which spent a large sum of money marketing Zestra, even though a closer examination of the product indicated some wishful thinking on the part of the company. QualiLife currently does not have a web site, so I'm going to take a giant speculative leap and suggest that this company, if it still exists, did not make a fortune in this business.

Even the hucksters at Berkeley Premium Neutraceuticals got in on the business at one point, although they are currently marketing their product for something completely different -- "normal hormonal balance," whatever that is.

A cynic might point out that the problem here looks similar to pharma companies' failed pursuit of diet drugs. In theory, the market looks highly lucrative, but in practice the biological mechanism may be too complicated to crack with a single drug.

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