Horn of rhinoceros. Penis of tiger. Root of sea holly. Husk of the emerald-green blister beetle known as the Spanish fly. So colorful and exotic is the list of substances that have been claimed to heighten sexual appetite that it’s hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment on first beholding the latest entry—a small white plastic nasal inhaler containing an odorless, colorless synthetic chemical called PT-141. Plain as it is, however, there is one thing that distinguishes PT-141 from the 4,000 years’ worth of recorded medicinal aphrodisiacs that precede it: It actually works.
And it’s coming to a medicine cabinet near you. The drug will soon enter Phase 3 clinical trials, the final round of testing before it goes to the Food and Drug Administration for review, and with the FDA’s approval it could reach the market in as soon as three years. The full range of possible risks and side effects has yet to be determined, but already this much is known: Putting that inhaler up your nose and popping off a dose of PT-141 results, in most cases, in a stirring in the loins in as few as fifteen minutes. Women, according to one set of results, feel “genital warmth, tingling and throbbing,” not to mention “a strong desire to have sex.” Among men, who’ve been tested with the drug more extensively, the data set is, shall we say, richer:
“With PT-141, you feel good, not only sexually aroused,” reported anonymous patient 007, a participant in a Phase 2 trial, “you feel younger and more energetic.” Said another patient: “It helped the libido. So you have the urge and the desire. . . . You get this humming feeling; you’re ready to take your pants off and go.” And another: “Twice me and my wife had sex twice in one night. I came in [to work] and I just raved about it: ‘Jesus, guys . . . 58 years old and you don’t do that.’ ” Tales of pharmaceutically induced sexual prowess among 58-year-olds are common enough in the age of the Little Blue Pill, but they don’t typically involve quite so urgent a repertoire of humming, throbbing, tingling, and double-dipping. Or as patient 128 put it: “My wife knows. She can tell the difference between Viagra and PT-141.”
The precise mechanisms by which PT-141 does its job remain unclear, but the rough idea is this: Where Viagra acts on the circulatory system, helping blood flow into the penis, PT-141 goes straight to the brain itself. And there it goes to work, switching on the same neural circuitry that lights up when a person actually, you know, wants to.
“It’s not merely allowing a sexual response to take place more easily,” explains Michael A. Perelman, co-director of the Human Sexuality Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital and a sexual-medicine adviser on the PT-141 trials. Though he cautions against jumping to conclusions, he’s hopeful that the drug represents a breakthrough. “It may be having an effect, literally, on how we think and feel.”
Palatin Technologies, the New Jersey–based maker of PT-141, has hopes of its own. Once the company gets FDA approval for the drug, Palatin plans to market it to the same crowd Viagra targets: male erectile-dysfunction patients. Approval as a treatment for female sexual dysfunction may follow, perhaps bringing relief to postmenopausal and other women with truly physiological barriers to sexual happiness. In the wake of Pfizer’s failed attempts to prove Viagra works for women, and amid growing recognition that it doesn’t even do the trick for large numbers of men, these two markets alone could make PT-141 a pharmaceutical blockbuster.
But let’s face facts: A drug that makes you not only able to but eager to isn’t going to remain the exclusive property of the severely impaired. As with Viagra, there will no doubt be extensive off-label use of PT-141. Fast-acting and long-lasting, packaged in an easily concealed, single-use nasal inhaler, unaffected by food or alcohol consumption, PT-141 seems bound to take its place alongside MDMA, cocaine, poppers, and booze itself in the pantheon of club drugs. If the chemical is all it’s cracked up to be, the perennial pharmacological dilemma of the pickup scene—namely, how to maximize the fun when the drinks required to set the mood are always more than enough to dull the senses—would appear to have found its solution.
You’ve been there yourself, after all: a third or fourth date, a late night of rich food, hard liquor, mildly exhausting erotic tension. Can you admit to yourself now, however hungrily you may have anticipated the evening’s scheduled consummation, that there was a part of you, when the moment arrived, that really would have rather been at home watching CSI?