Emory Report

March 27, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 26

Hormonal patch may raise female sex drive


For women who have their ovaries and uterus removed, post-surgical treatment tends to focus on replacing the estrogen their bodies no longer produce.

But estrogen isn't the only important hormone manufactured by the ovaries. They also release a small amount of the "male hormone," testosterone, which seems to contribute significantly to libido. Remove the ovaries, and the sex drive may suffer.

"It's probably more common than people think," said endocrinologist and professor of medicine Nelson Watts, who heads the Women's Health Initiative at Emory.

Emory will be one of several centers beginning a 24-week study to determine whether a testosterone patch will boost libido in women who have undergone what many informally call a "full hysterectomy," in which both the ovaries and uterus are removed.

The adhesive patch to be used in this study can be applied to the abdomen or the thigh and delivers medication to the bloodstream through the skin, just as estrogen or nicotine patches do. In the Emory study, four different patches will be used: three that contain testosterone in different doses, and one placebo with no hormone. Therefore, three in four women will receive some level of testosterone supplement. As with any double-blind, randomized trial, neither the researchers nor the study participants will know who is wearing what patch until the study is completed.

"The goal of the study is to determine if correcting testosterone deficiency­­restoring blood levels of testosterone to where they were before the ovaries were removed­­will improve sexual function," Watts said. "We need to determine which dose most closely reproduces the normal blood levels of testosterone."

Women's blood levels of testosterone typically are 5 to 10 percent of those in men. Too much testosterone, whether caused by ovarian tumors or excess supplementation (as from illegal steroids), can cause masculinization­­the voice may deepen, unwanted hair may grow and oily skin and acne may develop. These problems usually improve or reverse when the excess testosterone levels are corrected.

The testosterone dosages to be used in the Emory study aren't thought to be high enough to create such side effects. Volunteers may withdraw from the study at any time if they feel they are experiencing adverse effects.

Watts, who is director of the osteoporosis program at Emory, became interested in testosterone supplementation for women because of its possible effects on bone density. Men average 10 percent higher bone density than in women.

To be eligible for the study, women must be experiencing low libido (low sex drive) following removal of the uterus and both ovaries. They also must be taking estrogen hormone replacement therapy. For information, please call 404-727-1294.

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