Eli Lilly and Co. and Abbott Laboratories are offering help to the 13.8 million American men who have low levels of testosterone. But doctors warn demand for the treatments could lead to overuse with deadly side effects.
In what may become one of the most sought after sex-enhancement treatments since the introduction of Viagra 14 years ago, new testosterone drugs from Indianapolis-based Lilly, Abbott and other drugmakers are in hot demand. Prescriptions for testosterone-replacement therapies have more than doubled since 2006, to 5.6 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Sales are expected to triple to $5 billion by 2017, according to Global Industry Analysts Inc.
In clinics and treatment centers sprouting up around the country, men are lining up to get shots, gels and patches to boost their testosterone. Michael Murray, 43, a home stager in New York and Chicago, is one of them.
“Am I making a deal with the devil? A little bit, but I have to think about my quality of life,” said Murray. “It is like I’m in my 20s again.”
Murray said he doesn’t have any obvious symptoms of low testosterone levels. He simply wants to raise his energy level and give his body building regime a boost. That sort of endorsement may offer promise to the pharmaceutical industry. Still, a growing number of doctors warn that relying on the drug as a fountain of youth risks serious health consequences.
As many as 13.8 million men older than 45 in the U.S. have low levels of testosterone, according to a 2006 study in the International Journal of Clinical Practice. The male sex hormone begins to decline after age 30, and tends to drop about 1 percent each year, though the level of decline varies. Lower-than-normal levels can lead to a loss of libido, a decrease in bone and muscle mass, and depression, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Problems may occur when the drug is taken by those who don’t need it, according to health experts. Testosterone can increase the growth of prostate tumors and cause blood clots, infertility and liver damage, said Edmund Sabanegh, chairman of urology at the Cleveland Clinic. He said he is careful to prescribe the drugs only to patients with a medical need and has seen a rise in patients coming to him seeking a prescription for testosterone who don’t need it.
“There are a lot of really bad things that can happen” from misuse of testosterone, said Sabanegh. “I think it is a highly addictive drug and I think we need to be very careful about treating patients appropriately.”
Lilly and Abbott said they don’t condone the use of testosterone treatments by men who don’t have clinically low levels of the hormone. Lilly said its testosterone therapy, Axiron, was approved by U.S. regulators in 2010 based on a study of 155 men who were followed for as long as six months.
Both companies said that when used properly, their products provide tremendous help to men and that side effects are manageable. They said men taking the treatments should be monitored for prostate cancer.
Lilly began running television, online and print ads last year for Axiron, which is applied under the arm through a device similar to a deodorant stick. The ads tout the product as “the only underarm testosterone treatment.” The company doesn’t disclose how much it has spent on marketing.
The ads are intended to “help educate men about low testosterone and encourage them to seek treatment,” said Teresa Shewman, a Lilly spokeswoman.
While growing, sales of the drugs aren’t on par yet with those of erectile dysfunction treatments. The U.S. market for testosterone replacement therapies was $1.6 billion last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Sales of Pfizer Inc.’s Viagra were $1.98 billion and Lilly’s Cialis were $1.88 billion in 2011.