OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology
Erectile dysfunction (ED) is a condition in which a man has difficulty either initiating or maintaining an erection. The combined prevalence of minimal, moderate, and complete ED is approximately 40 percent in men at age 40, and reaches nearly 70 percent by 70 years of age. In addition to aging, ED is associated with diabetes, vascular disease, psychiatric disorders, prostate disorders, the use of some drugs such as certain antidepressants, and problems with the testes resulting in low testosterone concentrations. These physical and emotional conditions can lead to interruptions in the vasodilation pathway and result in an inability to achieve an erection.
Recall that the release of NO induces relaxation of the smooth muscles that surround the penile arteries, leading to the vasodilation necessary to achieve an erection. To reverse the process of vasodilation, an enzyme called phosphodiesterase (PDE) degrades a key component of the NO signaling pathway called cGMP. There are several different forms of this enzyme, and PDE type 5 is the type of PDE found in the tissues of the penis. Scientists discovered that inhibiting PDE5 increases blood flow, and allows vasodilation of the penis to occur.
PDEs and the vasodilation signaling pathway are found in the vasculature in other parts of the body. In the 1990s, clinical trials of a PDE5 inhibitor called sildenafil were initiated to treat hypertension and angina pectoris (chest pain caused by poor blood flow through the heart). The trial showed that the drug was not effective at treating heart conditions, but many men experienced erection and priapism (erection lasting longer than 4 hours). Because of this, a clinical trial was started to investigate the ability of sildenafil to promote erections in men suffering from ED. In 1998, the FDA approved the drug, marketed as Viagra®. Since approval of the drug, sildenafil and similar PDE inhibitors now generate over a billion dollars a year in sales, and are reported to be effective in treating approximately 70 to 85 percent of cases of ED. Importantly, men with health problems—especially those with cardiac disease taking nitrates—should avoid Viagra or talk to their physician to find out if they are a candidate for the use of this drug, as deaths have been reported for at-risk users.
Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/anatomy-and-physiology