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Dr. Berman's Sex Rx

Urologist Jennifer Berman and her drug-company backers believe better sex for women could be just a pill or product away. Her media-focused approach raised eyebrows at UCLA and persuaded her to take her message on the road--to Rodeo Drive, to be exact.

October 02, 2005|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times staff writer Anne-Marie O'Connor last wrote for the magazine about hit men of the Tijuana drug cartel.

The sisters' book "For Women Only"--coauthored with New York Times journalist Elisabeth Bumiller--was published in January 2001, and it shot up the New York Times bestseller list. Its message? Sexual satisfaction is something women deserve--and should expect. When the clinic opened, it was swamped.

"We had a 1,000-person waiting list," says Laura. "We ended up with a lot of upset, frustrated women calling from all over the country. I can't tell you how many women would be sitting in my office just crying from relief. It was almost like a grass-roots movement."

In addition to seeing patients, Jennifer worked with Pfizer to develop the protocol for a clinical study measuring Viagra's effects on 200 women at 31 medical centers throughout the country. While at UCLA, the sisters also found time to develop "Berman & Berman," a Discovery Health channel show that aired for three years and earned them more than $1 million for 65 episodes. They planned a second book, "Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman," a self-help manual that covers physical and psychological factors affecting sexuality, with tips on aids from candles and massage oil to off-label Viagra and testosterone. It came out in April and generated a TV-special spinoff.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 16, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
A photograph on the cover of the Oct. 2 Magazine showed Dr. Jennifer Berman sitting next to a swimming pool. The photo had been altered to remove a towel she was sitting on. Manipulating an image in this manner is not consistent with Times policy.

Less visible was another joint Berman endeavor, orchestrating media campaigns via satellite. "You sit down in front of a camera in a studio and go on lots of news programs around the country, talking about the issue of the day or the public awareness issue you're promoting," Laura says. For Procter & Gamble--which was hoping to market its own testosterone patch to increase female sexual desire--they heightened awareness of female libido issues. They discussed bladder health for Ocean Spray, herpes for Levitra, birth control for Seasonale and spotlighted other issues for Bayer and other clients. Jennifer didn't see any conflicts of interest with her scholarly work, because "I was very careful not to endorse any particular product, just create awareness of a particular disease."

Jennifer says UCLA took a commission from fees earned from the TV show and media campaigns, which Laura says brought from $10,000 to $75,000 or more per day. Roxanne Yamaguchi Moster, media relations director for UCLA Health Sciences, says the university collected its "standard overhead deduction" of 12.5% for the Discovery Health show. The university was unaware of corporate payments to the Bermans for media campaigns, she says, but it did receive donations from Ocean Spray, Pfizer, UroMetrics, Pharmacia and other companies. She adds that UCLA received financial support from other firms--Procter & Gamble, Vivus, Farr Laboratories--that helped offset the training expenses of the female sexual medicine fellow who worked with Jennifer.

The expanded Viagra research, meanwhile, yielded promising news for Pfizer. In September 2002, the Bermans posted an update on their website at stating that their findings, published the following year in the Journal of Urology, suggested that the drug could heighten sexual arousal for some women who had undergone menopause or a hysterectomy. "As the evidence of Viagra's success in women begins to develop, it will still be quite awhile before both sexes can pop their little blue pills and enjoy an enhanced sexual experience," the sisters wrote.

Their enthusiasm about Viagra was less guarded on "Berman & Berman." According to a transcript of a 2002 segment posted on their website, Laura explains that physicians can prescribe Viagra for women even though it's not FDA-approved for that use.

"I thought it was just for men," a guest on the show says. "Well, you're gonna learn," Jennifer responds, handing another woman 100 milligrams of Viagra and a vibrator and leaving her behind a partition with an erotic video while Jennifer measures her physical responses.

Later in the same show, Laura welcomes Hugh Hefner, "the poster child for Viagra," and a voice-over says: "Thinking about trying Viagra? It's now available from your doctor in a free six-pill sample box." Pfizer eventually dropped its efforts to prove Viagra works for women, saying that although it appeared to produce signs of physical arousal in some women, it did not seem to make women more desirous of sex. And Procter & Gamble has failed, so far, in its attempt to win FDA approval for a testosterone patch for women, with government officials citing concerns about unknown long-term effects.

Laura Berman left Los Angeles in late 2002 to get married and move to Chicago, where she started her own sexual health center offering, among its services, an "intensive week of sexual and personal make-over."

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