And let’s say things worked out between the two of you, so well, in fact, that you are together to this day, each still the light of the other’s life so many years after the light first flickered on. Can you honestly say, however excellent the sex remains, that there haven’t been moments, weeks, whole seasons, when the dogged stresses of daily life seemed to have wrung the last drop out of your sex drive? Or that these moments haven’t sometimes nudged you to doubt yourself and your relationship? And that if given the opportunity to propel a chemical spray up your nose that would revive the enthusiasm and snuff out those doubts like the needless, counterproductive anxieties you ultimately convinced yourself they are, you wouldn’t lay down your credit card first and ask questions later?
“He notices it’s there, and he grooms it to detumescence. And then it happens again.”
The potential market for PT-141, in short, is all of us. And the potential transformation of the modern American sex life is no less sweeping. Consider the precedent: Just more than four decades ago, it was another drug’s arrival in the marketplace that triggered what would eventually be called the sexual revolution. Before the advent of the birth-control pill, sex and procreation had been eternally, inseparably linked. After it, the link was pretty much optional. Momentous things ensued: women’s liberation, gay rights, the abortion controversy, all of them arguably the Pill’s indirect consequences, all of them reverberating to this day. And if all that can follow from a drug that simply made pregnancy less a matter of fate than of choice—what then to expect from a drug that does the same thing to passion itself?
Only when and if PT-141 reaches the market will we be in a position to even start answering that question. In the meantime, though, it can’t hurt to practice. And for now, there probably isn’t a better way to hone the question than to turn it on the individuals that have given more than any others—in blood, sweat, and other bodily fluids, at least—to make the question possible: the rats of the Palatin Technologies research labs.
“In a rat, there’s a mating ritual,” says Palatin CEO Carl Spana. “The female rat will approach the male head-to-head. She will wiggle her ears, she will wiggle her whiskers, she will nibble at him, and finally she’ll turn and run away.” If the male chooses not to pursue her, she may return and, as one leading rat sexologist puts it, “kick him in the face.” This tends to do the trick. The male gives chase, catches the female, and climbs on top of her, at which point only two key preparations remain to be completed. First, so that the female’s low-slung genitalia can be reached from above, her hindquarters will bend upward in a reflexive arching of the back called lordosis. Second, so that the male may take advantage of this invitation, his penis will stiffen and emerge from its hiding place under the abdominal fur. “And then,” Spana concludes, “they copulate.”
Spana’s familiarity with the sex life of rats is, of course, no accident: Their role in the development of PT-141 was pivotal. Years before the drug’s first human test patient felt that telltale humming in his pants, it was the lab rats of Palatin that established the drug’s potential for promoting what’s known in the trade as erectogenesis. The experiment, repeated hundreds of times, was a straightforward one. “You dose and you watch and you count,” Spana explains. Every time the penis of a subject rat emerged, stiff and ready, observers marked down the event in a notebook. The subjects, all “naïve” adults whose last contact with a female was on the day their mothers weaned them, seemed to have had, if anything, slightly less curiosity about their spontaneously generated boners than the researchers. The typical reaction: “He notices it’s there, and he grooms it to detumescence,” says Annette Shadiack, Palatin’s executive director of pre-clinical development. “And then it happens again.”
The high wood count was good news for Palatin’s management, who were banking on PT-141 to prove itself an effective treatment for erectile dysfunction. Two years earlier, and just three years past its start-up, the company had bought the rights to develop a substance called Melanotan II. Originally isolated by University of Arizona researchers looking for a way to give Caucasian desert-dwellers a healthy, sunblocking tan without exposing them to dangerous ultraviolet rays, Melanotan II achieved that modern miracle and more: It also appeared to facilitate weight loss, increase sexual appetite, and—why not?—act as an anti-inflammatory too. Quickly dubbed “the Barbie drug,” Melanotan II seemed too good to be true.
In fact, it was too good to be good. A drug with so many effects, Palatin decided, was not an effectively marketable one. So Palatin’s researchers set out to isolate the individual effects in the laboratory, experimenting with variations on Melanotan II’s molecular theme. As it happens, the compound that became PT-141 was one of the first variations examined, and the rat boners spoke as if with one voice, saying, “Here is your candidate.”