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Random Genius: Viagra

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Little. Blue. Different.

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It was the frozen penis that finally convinced them.

The saga began in Sandwich, England, where a team of Pfizer (PFE) scientists, led by Nicholas Terrett, were working to develop a treatment for angina. In clinical trials, the drug -- sildenafil citrate -- did breathtakingly little to alleviate the symptoms of coronary heart disease. It looked like the 7 years and untold thousands of pounds that Pfizer had devoted to this miracle drug might better have been spent on Jello shots, say, or bets on professional wrestling.

The pill did, however, have one small, noticeable side effect: Some men in the study (even those who had previously been impotent) reported having erections -- lovely, long-lasting, assertive erections -- while taking the drug.

Minyanville's Random Genius When the penis becomes erect, nerves in the shaft release nitric oxide, which in turn stimulates production of an enzyme called cyclic GMP. Cyclic GMP relaxes the penis's countless blood vessels, and blood thereby comes rushing in. Behold: The hard-on.

It's a simple equation: More enzymes mean more blood. The drug that would become known as Viagra causes its crowd-pleasingly persistent erections by suppressing the enzymes which ordinarily degrade cyclic GMP. (Of course, that same persistence can be extremely dangerous to the organ in question.)

But how to prove these nefarious GMP-assaulting enzymes were present in the body in the first place?

Here's where the frozen penis comes in: Having ordered the frosty member from one of those catalogues you no doubt have lying around your own home, the scientists performed a biochemical analysis that proved these enzymes were indeed found in the penis, and in vast quantities.

But what if you prefer fresh to frozen?

No fear: Pfizer's crack research team also ordered up brand-new post-surgical penile tissue. In the name of science, they then julienned it into convenient strips, gave it a series of electric shocks, and found that it became far more capable of erection when sildenafil was added.

In 1991, Pfizer patented the compound, whose brand name and adorable blue diamond shape we've all come to know and love: Viagra.

Since its release, Viagra has tended to be discussed in terms more appropriate to a Hollywood epic or full-scale international invasion than to mere medication: It's a blockbuster, it's world-altering, it's a full-frontal assault on everything you thought you knew about medicine - and it's generated untold billions for Pfizer. With an estimated 100 million Americans suffering from impotence -- and the miracle pill retailing for over $10 a pop -- it's no wonder that Pfizer's stock price doubled shortly following Viagra's release.

To be sure, Viagra was a distinct improvement over older methods of "treating" impotence, which included shoving metal rods into the urethra, implanting ape testicles into human scrota and blasting the lazy appendage with high-voltage electrical current. Spanking the monkey was never meant to be taken quite so literally.

Viagra -- despite its obvious benefits to Americans like John McCain -- is not entirely without flaws. It only works for 70% of those who try it, and can also cause lightheadedness, sudden sharp drops in blood pressure, and stroke or heart attack when taken alongside certain heart medications. (Irony of ironies, given that Viagra was once intended as a cardiac drug).

And worst of all? Viagra may prove that your killjoy Aunt Ida – the one who warned you that certain nasty habits could make you go blind -- was right all along: In a growing number of cases, Viagra has indeed caused blindness or permanent vision loss, for reasons not yet entirely clear.

Other visual disturbances associated with the little blue pill have also been reported, including the occasional trippy sense one is living in a "blue-tinged world."

Which is, strictly speaking, true: Pfizer and its big-pharma brethren -- which both created the idea of "erectile dysfunction" and cured it, all in one fell swoop -- own this world. We just live in it.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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