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International clinical trials headed by Gravida: National Centre for Growth and Development are set to begin this year in Australia and New Zealand to test sildenafil citrate, the active ingredient in Viagra, as a treatment for babies with restricted growth in utero. More than 120 pregnant women will be selected for participation in a trial that will eventually expand to include women in North America and Europe. Trials are designed to determine if sildenafil helps babies in utero with restricted growth gain more weight so that they have a better chance of being born healthy.

The Theory Behind the New Studies
Viagra works by affecting the smooth muscle lining blood vessels, including pelvic blood vessels feeding the sex organs. Scientists hypothesize that increased blood flow to the pelvic region in pregnant women may help deliver better blood flow to the womb, and hence the fetus. Around one-tenth of babies are born underweight, and severe growth restriction before birth can result in premature delivery and stillbirths. There are currently no treatments for this type of growth restriction other than early delivery, and babies delivered early are at increased risk of long term problems like lung disease, developmental delay, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness.

Previous Studies in Mice, Sheep, and a Small Number of Pregnant Women
Tests of this theory have been done in mice, and researchers found that fetal deaths dropped significantly in pregnant mice treated with Viagra. The drug appears to allow more nutrient-rich blood to reach fetuses. Small studies have also been carried out in sheep, and a new study is set to begin at Massey University in New Zealand to determine whether Viagra improves survival rates in sheep triplets. These lambs are smaller, have less milk supply available than singleton sheep, and are more likely to die after birth. The new sheep study is designed to address farm productivity, but could help answer questions about humans as well. One small Canadian trial of 10 women with severe fetal growth restriction also helped prompt the new human studies.

New Study Set to Begin This Year
Gravida plans to start recruiting pregnant women in Australia and New Zealand in October. Subsequent studies are planned in the UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Canada, and the United States. The New Zealand and Australian studies are expected to be completed by 2016, with the later studies expected to conclude in 2018.

Other Potential Uses for Viagra

Viagra may have other potential uses, too. It is already used to save lives of infants and adults with a condition called pulmonary arterial hypertension. In this condition, blood pressure in the pulmonary artery, which carries blood from the right-hand chambers of the heart to small arteries in the lungs, is dangerously high. The drug called Revatio contains the same active ingredient as Viagra, and boosts blood flow to the lungs, reducing the heart’s workload, and extending lives of some people with this condition. The drug may also have potential for treating a range of other health conditions including diabetes, breast cancer, and heart attacks.

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