For the 34-employee company Sprout Pharmaceuticals, this week marked the end of long and difficult battle that began when the company was first founded in 2011.
On Tuesday evening, the FDA gave a green light on the company’s sole drug, flibanserin, which comes in the form of a little pink pill designed to spark sexual desire in women suffering from hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), where they have a chronically low desire to have sex.
Business Insider spoke to Sprout Pharmaceuticals CEO Cindy Whitehead about the obstacles she faced to get this drug approved.
For the women
“It’s breaking up their marriages, it’s really having them feel lesser,” she said of women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder, the condition flibanserin is approved to treat. “I think the possibility of providing women access to a treatment really meant a lot to me.”
The disparity from a scientific standpoint makes sense: Men get aroused when blood flows into their genitals. Women don’t respond that easily. For women, researchers have to look at how to get the brain stimulated to increase sexual desire. But that’s easier said than done.
Pharma giant Boehringer Ingleheim was the first to start developing flibanserin back in 2006, when a antidepressant drug actually increased libido instead of suppressing it, a common side effect for antidepressants.
The FDA rejected the pill in 2010 because it didn’t show a significant change in women’s libido over placebos. That’s when Whitehead swooped in and snatched it up.
She still thought the drug had the potential to be useful for women with HSDD.
“I saw this spectacular science that was going to be abandoned,” Whitehead said. “And I thought it was going to be abandoned frankly because of a society unwilling to have a frank discussion about sex for women.”
It took another rejection from the FDA in 2013 before Sprout could figure out how to meet with the agency’s criteria and move the drug along toward approval, which it finally achieved last week.
“The FDA rules on science,” she said. “And on Tuesday, they ruled on science.”
A Valeant acquisition and the future
Just days after FDA approval, Valeant announced its plans to pick up Sprout for $1 billion, with future milestone payments that haven’t been disclosed.
For Whitehead, an acquisition of her small Sprout team made a lot of sense.
“I think what this affords us is to do that in a way that we as a 34-person company wouldn’t have otherwise been able to,” she said. “I think that means … affordable access for more women.”
Whitehead said the acquisition’s been in the works since the FDA panel ruled in favor of Addyi – the market name for flibanserin.
Now that the drug’s approved, Whitehead said the next step is to focus on the short term goals of trying to get it on the market right way.
“I’d love to see this usher in a new era of interest in terms of investment and research for conditions like HSDD that uniquely impact women,” she said.
But there’s still skepticism about how well the drug works, and at what cost. The drug carries some rather serious warnings. The drug causes severe side effects like a drop in blood pressure and fainting when consumed with alcohol.
What’s more, as Bloomberg points out, the drug only improved sexual desire in 9 percent more women than those taking placebo medication.
So why pursue a drug that only works a little bit better than placebo and hasn’t been proven safe yet with just a glass of wine at dinner to loosen you up even more?
“For the women,” Whitehead said. “The only reason you’d be considered to be treated for this is if it is causing you distress and for many of these women it’s profound distress.”