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Elixirs of Love? : Two scientists have bottled competing products that are supposed to enhance romance--or at least make you feel good.

July 15, 1994|LESLIE KNOWLTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With names like Realm and Athena, they certainly sound sexy, like something you'd see advertised in the back of a magazine--and we're not talking about Highlights or the Nation.

They're two new fragrance products created with the ages-old goal of enhancing romance. Exposure on TV news and talk shows, in science and health magazines and in newspapers has helped fuel brisk sales, their promoters say.

But some independent scientists have questions about how the biochemistry works, and the Food and Drug Administration might soon start sniffing around, too.

The inventors of Realm and Athena are rival scientists-turned-entrepreneurs, each of whom claims to have developed the only formula containing pheromones--airborne chemical messengers released by one body to affect others of the same species.

The inventors stress that the products are cosmetics and not aphrodisiacs, which would make them drugs in the eyes of the FDA and bring about closer scrutiny.

One, called Realm, comes as two perfumes--one for women and one for men. It was developed by Dr. David Berliner, a former University of Utah researcher who founded Pherin Corp., a pharmaceutical development company in Menlo Park, Calif., and Erox Corp. in Fremont, Calif., a consumer product company whose first venture is these Realm perfumes.

"This," says Michael Stern, Erox's vice president of sales and marketing, "is not snake oil. It promotes attractiveness by making the wearer feel good."

The other product--a fragrance additive for women--is Athena Pheromone 10:13. It was developed by former University of Pennsylvania researcher Winnifred Cutler, who conducted studies at the Monell Chemical Senses Center--a respected, nonprofit research company in Philadelphia--and later founded her own research company, the Athena Institute of Women's Wellness in Haverford, Pa.

"This," she says, "is not snake oil. It definitely promotes sexual attractiveness."

Still, an FDA official says the agency might take a closer look.

"Anything that claims--either by advertising, labeling or word of mouth--to promote sexual attractiveness or performance would be considered an aphrodisiac, and therefore likely a drug," says John Bailey, acting director of the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors in Washington, D.C.

Bailey, who had not heard of Realm or Athena, says he is "aware of products today being promoted as fragrances that are somehow mood-altering." Because drugs require FDA approval, Bailey says it's a "pretty good bet" his agency will look at both products and take regulatory action, if necessary.

"(These) sound like a new twist on old types of products that claim to produce changes in mental states," he says.

*

Just what is it about pheromones that has everyone so excited? While their existence in insects and mammals has long been scientifically established--among other functions, they're what cause male dogs to chase female dogs in heat--human pheromones are less understood.

In 1986, Cutler and then-colleague George Preti published research in the scientific journal Hormones and Behavior about the possibility of human pheromones, findings widely publicized in national mainstream media. (Time magazine headlined it "The Hidden Power of Body Odors.")

The studies, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania and the Monell center, indicated that substances extracted from male and female underarm secretions and later applied under a woman's nose could beneficially alter the timing of her menstrual periods.

Although the precise nature and chemical workings of the collected substances were not reported, Cutler then speculated that synthetic versions could have practical applications in areas of infertility, menopause and birth control.

Says Cutler of that time: "My dream was that manufactured pheromones, in creams, sprays or perfumes, could dramatically alter the well-being of women."

Cutler left Monell to found the Athena Institute, and for the next seven years investigated pheromones independently while applying for patents and figuring out how to produce a product in quantity.

Last September, she released 10:13 as a "cosmetic additive to promote romance"; appeared on "Sally Jessy Raphael," "The Montel Williams Show" and other talk shows to tout it; impressed a self-described California "romance therapist" enough to recommend it, and subsequently sold by mail and phone "many thousands of vials" at $95 for one-sixth of an ounce.

"This is a natural outcome of two decades of research," she says of her formula, designed to be mixed with about two ounces of a woman's favorite non-spray fragrance and dabbed on every day and worn for at least six hours for maximum effectiveness.

So, does it work?

Preti, an organic chemist who still works at Monell, doesn't see how this product could have grown from any research he's aware of.

He says his past work with Cutler demonstrated only that there was in underarm secretions "something physiologically active" that can affect a woman's menstrual cycle.

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