updated 6/13/2005 4:30:35 PM ET 2005-06-13T20:30:35

Children suffering from a rare and fatal lung disease were able to walk farther and breathe easier after taking the impotence pill Viagra, a small study suggests.

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Researchers say that use of the drug to treat these very sick children, suffering from pulmonary hypertension, needs more study. But they called these early results promising.

“I think that it’s an important finding, but an awful lot more work has to go into finding its place in treatment,” said lead study author Dr. Ian Adatia, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco Children’s Hospital.

Just a week ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved using the main ingredient in Viagra to treat adults with pulmonary hypertension.

The disease, which has no cure, causes continuous high blood pressure in the artery that carries blood from the heart to small vessels in the lungs. The vessels narrow, leaving less room for blood to flow. The heart can’t keep up if the pressure gets too high, and patients suffer from fatigue, shortness of breath and eventually heart failure and death.

Few side effects
If untreated, children usually die within a year. And even with treatment, few patients live five years past diagnosis, said Adatia, who did the research while he was director of the Childhood Pulmonary Hypertension Clinic at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

The study, published online in the American Heart Association journal Circulation on Monday, was funded by Pfizer, the maker of Viagra.

Adatia said one benefit of Viagra is that it has fewer side effects than other treatments, and that turning to Viagra is “actually not that far of a leap.” The drug works by relaxing the smooth muscle of blood vessels, increasing blood flow.

For the study, researchers gave 14 children with pulmonary hypertension — boys and girls ages 5 to 18 — various doses of Viagra for a year. At the end of the year, the average distance they were able to walk in six minutes increased by 508 feet. They were also able to breathe more easily as resistance in the pulmonary arteries dropped by about 20 percent.

All the children were still alive after the year of treatment. The researchers said that similar patients have a survival rate of about 37 percent at one year.

The big advantage of Viagra, Adatia said, is it’s easy to take and has few side effects.

“We saw an improvement very early on in the first couple of months and we were very happy to see that children with this dreadful disease had some progress,” said Dr. Tilman Humpl, another study author who heads the Pulmonary Hypertension Clinic at the Toronto children’s hospital.

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