The (other) surprising uses for Viagra

The (other) surprising uses for Viagra: As impotence pill helps save nurse in a Covid coma, why it might also help patients with dementia and pulmonary hypertension

Could Viagra be a Swiss Army knife of drugs, helping to cure lethal diseases such as Covid, Alzheimer’s and cancer, as well as bringing its more famous sexual benefit?

The medication’s manifold potential was highlighted this week when a respiratory nurse who had spent 28 days in a Covid coma came round after doctors gave her a large dose of the drug as part of an experimental treatment regimen.

Monica Almeida, 37, a double-jabbed asthmatic mother-of-two from Lincolnshire, says the drug boosted the blood flow around her body by relaxing the walls of blood vessels, which helped open up the air sacs in her lungs. 

She said she’d been just three days away from having her ventilator turned off when her condition started to improve and she woke up on December 14.

Last month researchers suggested it may help treat Alzheimer’s, reported the journal Nature Aging. U.S. investigators analysed data from seven million patients and found men taking the drug had a lower risk of Alzheimer’s over a six-year period

It’s the first time the drug has been used on a Covid patient in the UK.

Viagra (or sildenafil, its generic name) was developed to treat angina, which causes painful chest pain due to restricted blood flow to the heart. In trials, sildenafil showed little benefit for angina pain, but male volunteers reported an unusual side-effect — erections. And in 1998, sildenafil won approval as the first-proven drug for erectile dysfunction.

But it appears to have other actions, too. Last month researchers suggested it may help treat Alzheimer’s, reported the journal Nature Aging. U.S. investigators analysed data from seven million patients and found men taking the drug had a lower risk of Alzheimer’s over a six-year period.

In laboratory tests, researchers found that sildenafil appears to target a form of protein, called tau, found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

The tests also found that high doses of the drug increased brain-cell growth. Previously, scientists had been exploring whether sildenafil might help people at risk of vascular dementia, which occurs when reduced blood flow damages the brain.

Such a benefit is more easily explained, as it comes down to the drug’s basic blood flow-boosting abilities. Sildenafil is a vasodilator: it widens blood vessels to allow for the free flow of blood.

Monica Almeida, 37, a double-jabbed asthmatic mother-of-two from Lincolnshire, says the drug boosted the blood flow around her body by relaxing the walls of blood vessels. She is pictured with with her husband Arthur

This is why sildenafil is also used to increase blood flow to damaged limbs, to avoid amputation, and to treat pulmonary hypertension — high blood pressure in the vessels that carry blood from the heart to the lungs. This can cause a severe shortage of breath and chest pain.

Sildenafil-related compounds may reverse the signs of heart failure, according to 2019 research in the journal Scientific Reports, which showed the blood-boosting benefits ‘improved contraction in heart failure and reversed the adverse structural damage’.

And in 2020, researchers in India announced that a gel made from sildenafil can heal damaged skin suffered by cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy. Scientists said the drug triggers the release of nitric oxide, a chemical that helps wound healing, by stimulating the flow of oxygen-rich blood.

Sildenafil may even help kill tumours of the lung, prostate, stomach and ovaries. According to researchers in New Zealand, the drug encourages rogue cancer cells to kill themselves off, a process called apoptosis. They reported in the journal Anti-Cancer Agents in Medicinal Chemistry in 2018 how in tests, sildenafil, used with chemotherapy drugs, shrinks tumours more effectively than when chemotherapy is used alone.

Another strange effect is in its potential for treating jet lag. Studies in rodents published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2007 showed sildenafil can shift the body clock to wake and sleep earlier by altering the action of the hormone cyclic guanosine monophosphate.

Professor Gino Martini, former chief scientist for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, told Good Health sildenafil’s versatility stems from the fact ‘many of our bodies’ and brains’ biological pathways are inter-related, and what affects one pathway can affect many others’.

He adds: ‘In the case of sildenafil, these additional effects are very fortuitous, particularly as it is a drug that has been widely used and tested for safety.’

But like any drug, it is not without risks. In people who have had heart attacks, strokes or low blood pressure, sildenafil can exacerbate symptoms or cross-react with other medication.

Meanwhile, Professor Martini says that the case of Monica Almeida does not prove sildenafil is an effective remedy for severe Covid infection.

‘The problem with the pandemic has been lots of people have been trying lots of drugs on lots of patients, and there can be random results that don’t tell us whether something truly works,’ he says.

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