Inspiring Innovation: The samples they wouldn’t give back

May 7, 2019

I’m often asked what my personal favourite is amongst the 75 tales I have written about the origins of some of the world’s biggest brands.  I always find it difficult to pick just one, there are many that appeal to me for different reasons, but one that definitely and consistently makes the shortlist is a story of a happy accident, an unexpected outcome to what could have been a failure but became a huge success.

So here’s the story of “The samples they wouldn’t give back”:

The Samples They Wouldn’t Give Back

The fastest selling drug of all time doesn’t do what it was originally intended to do.

It started life in 1989 as a medication called sildenafil citrate and was classified as UK-92480. It had been created by British scientists, Peter Dunn and Albert Wood, working

for Pfizer. They believed it would be useful in treating high blood pressure and angina, chest pain caused by the constriction of vessels that supply the heart with blood.

Somewhat disappointingly for them, and for Pfizer, the initial trial results suggested that it didn’t help relax these blood vessels.

However, things were looking up on another front as Dr Brian Klee, a senior medical director at Pfizer, later told the French news agency, AFP: “Originally, we were testing sildenafil … as a cardiovascular drug and for its ability to lower blood pressure, but one thing that was found during those trials is that people didn’t want to give the medication back because of the side effect of having erections that were harder, firmer and lasted longer.”

With UK-92480’s chances of treating angina slim, Pfizer decided to focus on erectile dysfunction, so another Pfizer scientist, Chris Wayman, was asked to investigate

what was happening.

He created a model ‘man’ in the lab.

He took a set of test tubes filled with an inert solution and placed a piece of penile tissue taken from an impotent man in each one. Each piece of tissue was then connected up to a device that, at the flick of a switch, would send a pulse of electricity through it.

Applying this current of electricity mimicked what happens when a man is aroused.

The first time Chris did this nothing happened to the vessels, but when he added the drug to the tissue bath the penile blood vessels suddenly relaxed – as they would for a man with normal erectile function – giving him an erection.

“What was amazing about this study was that we saw a restoration of the erectile response,” he said. “Now we were on to something which could only be described as special.”

In 1996 Pfizer, on the back of further encouraging test results, patented sildenafil citrate in the US.

On 27 March 1998, complete with a new name, the FDA approved the use of the drug Viagra to treat erectile dysfunction.

It’s estimated that the drug has now been used by more than 35 million men around the world.

SPARKPOINT: Sometimes you can start out looking for one thing but find another along the way – don’t ignore happy accidents.

About the Author

Giles Lury would describe himself as a VW Beetle driving, Lego Watch wearing, Disney loving, Chelsea supporting father of five who also happens to be Director of a leading strategic brand consultancy, The Value Engineers. Giles is the author of six previous books, including two volumes of marketing stories – The Prisoner and the Penguin and How Coca-Cola Took Over the World (both published by LID Publishing).

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