As soon as the bremelanotide (a.k.a. PT-141) arrived in the mail, I shook the white crystal onto a mirror and began to chop it into powder. I snorted some and a bitter taste began its steady descent down the back of my throat. But I wasn't about to complain. Thanks to a website called Tanresearch.com and $65, I finally had my hands on the most revolutionary sex drug ever created. This potion had undergone studies for almost a decade in a quest to make it the first-ever FDA-approved aphrodisiac to hit the U.S. market.
Sure, history and folk medicine are full of purported aphrodisiacs, like Spanish fly and rhinoceros horn. But bremelanotide isn't like those – neither is it simply an erectile dysfunction drug like Viagra or Cialis, so-called PDE-5 inhibitors that work by pushing blood around the body. Bremelanotide belongs to a new class of drugs called melanocortins, which work in the mind, increasing sexual desire. Deep inside the brain, the substance stirs passion by activating hypothalamic and limbic emotional structures, the parts that naturally flare when you're turned on. Scientists aren't exactly sure how melanocortins do this, but the result is clear: Before you know it, you want to have sex. Or at least that's what the research has shown.
After snorting 10 milligrams of the stuff, I felt nothing. Several hours later I still wasn't the slightest bit horny. So at midnight I went to bed, totally unaware of the flood of animalistic desire that was to take hold of me.
A year earlier I was in the Montreal lab of Jim Pfaus, arguably the world's preeminent expert on bremelanotide.
A 50-year-old neuroscientist, Pfaus was in the last stages of preclinical trials aimed at getting FDA approval for bremelanotide. Originally developed as a self-tanning agent, the drug had been repurposed when male study subjects reported a surprising side effect: erections. A New Jersey pharmaceutical company called Palatin Technologies had bought the drug, then turned the pill into a powder that could be delivered nasally, hoping that sleek nasal-spray dispensers could blow away little blue pills – and earn profits that would dwarf the $150 million that Palatin had spent on research and clinical testing.
Pfaus showed me stunning testimonials from human test subjects. "On the five-point scale, I would rate the erection I had as a six," said one of the 1,300 anonymous testers. "You get this humming feeling," said another. "You're ready to take your pants off and go."
The drug worked equally well on women, who chronicled "an intense arousal" that lasted from six to 72 hours. "I was focused on sex," said one of the women.
But there were side effects, and in 2007, Palatin's sex drug hit a roadblock just before entering phase-three testing, the FDA's final clinical hurdle before the drug is released to the public. Some of the men who sniffed bremelanotide experienced an increase in blood pressure, and about one third of the women who took the drug reported nausea.
There were also those who doubted the drug would actually cause couples to want to jump into bed together. "It's baloney," says Leonore Tiefer, a professor of psychiatry at New York University's Langone School of Medicine. "You might increase genital itchiness, but you won't increase desire."
It appeared that bremelanotide would fall into the ash heap of failed aphrodisiacs, to rest in peace with tiger penis soup. But then something unexpected happened.
In 2008, Iranian urologist Mohammad Reza Safarinejad published findings he had gathered by testing bremelanotide that he purchased from a company in Dubai on men and women. "He got fantastic results," says Pfaus. "Palatin had published everything about the drug – including the exact sequence of the compound." Middle Eastern chemists used that sequence to create the drug themselves. Shortly thereafter, several companies began offering the drug online.
But was it safe? "Well," says Pfaus, "we never resolved that blood pressure thing. There's no guarantee of purity. The FDA won't regulate it."
Clearly, the purity issue wasn't going to stop me. Several hours after taking the drug, I wasn't experiencing a headache, a palpitating heart, or nausea, but, sadly, I also hadn't enjoyed a spontaneous erection. Then, at four in the morning, it took hold. I felt a great surge of affection (greater than any regular level of arousal) for my lovely wife. My body tingled and, yes, I developed an erection that wouldn't quit. For two hours the drug wouldn't let me out of its grasp – nor my wife out of mine.