A little appetiser

In just over a month, on March 21st, Inspiring Innovation, my new book which tell the stories behind a variety of brand innovations is published. So as a little appetiser I thought I would share one with you now.

As you’ll see I’ve deliberately kept them short, the wonderful Guy Chalkley has done little cartoons for each tale and I finish every one with a moral or rather a ‘sparkpoint’ which I hope will encourage you to think about your next innovation.


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.

By: Giles Lury

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