In - Policy

On 21 June 2013, Pfizer's monopoly on little blue pills came to an end. We take a brief look at the history of this transformative drug.

Pfizer, a leading pharmaceutical company, initially developed Viagra for cardiovascular conditions in 1989. Although clinical trials in 1996 reported no cardiovascular benefit, clinicians did notice that the men involved in the trial were getting a lot more erections. 

Pfizer saw an opportunity, and swiftly changed tack, so by March 1998 Viagra was approved for treatment of erectile dysfunction in Europe and the USA

The Viagra launch coincided with the aftermath of a White House sex scandal as Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were still in the middle of a 'did they / didn't they?' media frenzy, and sex was very much a 'hot topic' in the news.  Shortly after this, TIME magazine put 'The Potency Pill' on the front cover and former Republican Presidential Nominee Bob Dole appeared on Larry King Live discussing his own fight against prostate cancer, and involvement in the Viagra clinical trials.  Such public discussion of sex and sexual problems was instrumental in starting to break the taboo surrounding erectile dysfunction, although there's still some way to go.

Since its launch, Viagra sales have continued to rise, peaking in 2012 when it brought in revenues of over $2 billion.  Over half of this revenue came from the USA, where Pfizer's patent will stay in place until 2020. 

Viagra has also been tested in some more unusual situations. 

In 1999, researchers found that adding Viagra (sildenafil) to a vase of flowers kept them upright for about a week longer than their natural life-span. Interestingly, sildenafil works in a similar way in flowers to men; it stops flowers wilting by slowing the breakdown of cGMP.

Eight years later, in 2007, Patricia Agostino and colleagues were awarded the Ig Nobel award in Aviation (awarded for improbable research that 'first makes people laugh, then makes them think') for their finding that Viagra combats jetlag in hamsters. This may sound ridiculous, but there was actually a sensible reason behind it.  Thanks to evolution's remarkably efficient 'why do a good job twice' philosophy, the same substances, cGMP and PDE5, are involved in controlling our day/night rhythms and getting an erection (as well as helping flowers stay up straight!).

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