Could a female Viagra be developed?

Sprout Pharmaceuticals wants to find out if it can make a so-called pink Viagra and it’s picking up where German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim left off.

Sprout acquired flibanserin, a compound that Boehringer pursued as a drug to treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder, or HSDD — essentially, diminished sexual desire. Sprout has now raised $5 million to support the Raleigh company’s efforts to commercialize a product to treat this female sexual dysfunction.

Boerhinger had originally studied flibanserin as a depression treatment in men and women, an endeavor that was not successful. But that depression research led to the company’s pursuit of an HSDD treatment. Similar to a depression drug, flibanserin acts on neurotransmiters.

The compound was theorized to have a pro-sexual effect. Boehringer planned to market its drug under the brand name “Girosa.” But in the months leading up to the Boehringer’s regulatory interactions with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, industry observers often referred to the compound as a female Viagra or pink Viagra, even though it does not share the same mechanism of action as the Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) product.

In June 2010, an FDA advisory committee declined to recommend approval for flibanserin, instead telling Boehringer the pharma would need more data to support flibanserin’s efficacy and safety profile. Two months later, the FDA issued a complete response letter on the compound. In October 2010, Boehringer said it would discontinue development of flibanserin.

There are no FDA-approved products to treat HSDD. Boehringer is not the only company who tried to develop the first such product, only to fall short. Late last year, Illinois company BioSante Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:BPAX) released phase 3 clinical trial results for LibiGel. The testosterone gel attempted to approach HSDD from the standpoint of a hormone imbalance. But in the two trials, a placebo appeared to work just as well as the BioSante compound.

Sprout CEO Bob Whitehead did not return messages seeking comment. According to a securities filing, Sprout raised $5 million in equity financing from 61 investors. The filing says Sprout’s board of directors may increase the offering to $6 million, at its discretion. Proceeds from the offering will be used as working capital.

Whitehead brings to Sprout previous experience working with hormone treatments. Before Sprout, he was CEO of Slate Pharmaceuticals, a Raleigh company that developed and commercialized Testopel, a pellet implanted just below the skin to deliver testosterone to men who have low levels of the hormone. Slate was sold late last year, according to Sprout’s website. Sprout spun off from Slate.

Before Slate, Whitehead was an executive at Auxilum Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:AUXL) where he oversaw that company’s launch of topical testosterone gel Testim. For Sprout, Whitehead has taken along some of Slate’s executives and pulled in new blood as well. For example, Sprout’s vice president for drug development is James Symons, who comes to the company from Meditrina Pharmaceuticals, a clinical stage company in Michigan. Symons’ Meditrina experience could prove particularly useful for Sprout’s efforts. Meditrina focuses on developing products addressing unmet medical needs for women.