Sometimes we medical people get to hear about medications and treatments before they hit the doctor’s offices and pharmacies. Recently, MiddlesexMD advisor Dr. Michael Krychman interviewed Dr. James Simon, a well-connected expert in women’s sexual health, about new treatments that are under development to treat vulvovaginal atrophy (VA).
If you recall, VA is the thinning and inflammation of your delicate genital tissues, including the vagina, which is caused by loss of estrogen after menopause. As you can imagine (or already know), it causes genital irritation, an increase in minor infections, and uncomfortable—or downright painful—sex.
VA doesn’t go away, and it doesn’t get better by itself—it requires treatment, usually in the form of estrogen, whether taken internally or applied topically. Topical estrogen creams, tablets, and rings can be very effective in treating the effects of VA.
But a few new approaches are also under investigation. They are:
- DHEA suppositories. DHEA (which, if you must know, stands for dehydroepiandrosterone), is a steroid that, according to Dr. Simon, is “taken up by the vaginal cells themselves, which convert them to testosterone and estradiol.” The estradiol eases symptoms of VA, and the testosterone improves muscular function and makes the vagina and clitoris more sensitive, so it also gives the libido a little boost. None of it is absorbed into the system, so the medication should be safe for women with breast or ovarian cancers. Don’t expect to see this little number on pharma shelves too soon. Dr. Simon advises patience, since the treatment in still in clinical trials and then must be approved by the FDA.
- Treatment for VA in pill form. Because many women (and their partners) find topical treatments for VA—creams, rings, suppositories—messy, unpleasant, and a sex inhibitor, a new drug that is readily absorbed by the estrogen receptors in the vagina, but not in other places, such as the endometrium, is being tested.
- Very low-dose estrogen tablet. In an ongoing effort to find the lowest effective dose of estrogen, Novo Nordisk, the manufacturer of Vagifem, recently found that 10 micrograms is effective in treating symptoms of VA. “It seems to work extremely well, even at these extraordinarily low doses,” said Dr. Simon. And even after taking it for a year, he points out, this dosage amounts to just over 1 gram of estrogen, an amount that is probably safe even for breast cancer patients. The disadvantage, warns Dr. Simon, is that, while the medication treats vaginal symptons well, it might not be as effective for the vulva (the external genitalia). In this case, women may still need an estrogen cream for the very important vulvar care.
Since over 40 percent of post-menopausal women experience symptoms of VA, an effective treatment that doesn’t increase our cancer risks would make us—and our partners—very happy. Take heart. “Many companies are dedicated to innovative treatments without rise in systemic hormones,” said Dr. Krychman.