WASHINGTON — The multidecade search for a pill that boosts sexual desire in women has hit another roadblock, raising questions about the future of efforts to develop a female equivalent to Viagra.
Sprout Pharmaceuticals said Wednesday it has reached an impasse with the Food and Drug Administration over its drug, flibanserin. The daily pill is designed to increase libido in women by acting on brain chemicals linked to mood and appetite.
The FDA questions whether the drug’s benefits outweigh its risks, considering its ‘‘modest’’ effectiveness and side effects including fatigue, dizziness, and nausea.
Sprout, based in Raleigh, N.C., said it is appealing an October letter from the FDA that denied approval and asked for more information. But chances for approval appear slim: Of the 17 appeals FDA considered last year, 14 were denied, according to government figures.
The agency’s latest rejection raises serious questions for more than a half-dozen companies working to develop therapies for women who report stress due to lack of libido. It’s a market drug makers have been trying to tap since the blockbuster success of Viagra, an erectile-dysfunction drug approved in the late 1990s to increase blood flow to the genitals.
But unlike sexual problems in men, most of women’s sexual issues are psychological, not physical. As a result, there are a number of alternate causes doctors must consider before diagnosing female sexual desire disorders, including relationship problems, hormone disorders, depression, and mood issues caused by other medications.
Experts say that developing drugs for female sexual dysfunction is so difficult because of how poorly we understand the root causes.
‘‘Erectile dysfunction is a really easy thing to measure,’’ says Emory University researcher Kim Wallen. ‘‘Motivation is a hard thing to measure and, quite honestly, we don’t know enough about what creates sexual motivation to manipulate it.’’
Drug makers have made several unsuccessful attempts at tweaking their approach to boosting female libido over the years. Initially, Pfizer tested Viagra on women, hoping that the drug’s ability to increase blood flow to genitals would increase sex drive in women.
When that didn’t work, drug makers turned to hormones, including the male hormone testosterone. In 2004, an FDA panel rejected Procter & Gamble’s testosterone patch, Intrinsa, due to questions about its long-term safety — despite evidence of effectiveness.
Sprout’s flibanserin is the first drug to approach the problem through brain chemistry.