Tanning Bonus

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It worked for frogs, Dr. Norman Levine reasoned, so why wouldn't Melanotan, a synthetic form of a natural hormone called Alpha MSH, work for humans? When frogs are given a shot of the stuff, it triggers rapid pigmentation of their skin. Perhaps, the University of Arizona dermatologist thought, Melanotan might help humans develop a tan without their having to expose themselves to the damaging ultraviolet rays of the sun.

With approval from the Food and Drug Administration, Levine administered a series of Melanotan shots to a group of 10 volunteer men, all of whom soon turned various shades of brown. But one of them, whom Levine admiringly describes as an "astute observer," reported another, unexpected result. Soon after each injection, he had what he described as a "spontaneous erection." Closely questioned, seven of the other men realized that they too had experienced seemingly Melanotan-connected tumescences.

The unforeseen bonus led Dr. Hunter Wessells, a University of Arizona urologist, to join the Melanotan team and help design tests of two groups of sexually dysfunctional men. Most of them also achieved erections after injections of the drug, including one man who had had no luck with Viagra. With Melanotan, he exulted, "the first time was absolutely incredible."

How does the drug work? Wessells believes it acts on the brain, specifically the hypothalamus, to set off arousal centers there. "It will start an erection whether you want it or not," he says. "The men in these trials weren't being stimulated erotically."

To meet FDA requirements for new drugs, Palatin Technologies, which licensed the compound from the university, is conducting efficacy and toxicity tests on lab rats, which have responded with their own little erections--and without any other significant side effects. Anticipating approval for more extensive human trials before the end of the year, the Princeton, N.J., firm is developing more palatable nasal-spray and pill versions, which it hopes will someday provide stiff competition for Viagra.