The research programme that started in 1985 led to the approval of Sildenafil (Viagra ® ), in 1998, as the first oral treatment for male erectile dysfunction. The initial project objective was the design and synthesis of novel inhibitors of phosphodiesterase that would increase tissue levels of cGMP, and that could be beneficial for the treatment of cardiovascular conditions. Starting from zaprinast, a weak phosphodiesterase inhibitor, computer modelling guided rational medicinal chemistry to achieve significant increases in potency and selectivity for the 5-isoenzyme within a novel series of pyrazolopyrimidinones. Optimization of structure–activity relationships and pharmacokinetic properties led to sildenafil, which proved essentially devoid of cardiovascular activity in clinical trials. However, the emerging role of nitric oxide and cGMP in controlling blood flow in the penis suggested that sildenafil would have a beneficial effect on erectile function. This hypothesis was confirmed by extensive clinical trials in nearly 5000 patients and the Food and Drug Administration approved sildenafil in March 1998 for male erectile dysfunction. Sildenafil is now available in over 100 countries and more than 150 million tablets have been dispensed worldwide. The sildenafil research programme reflects a traditional approach to drug discovery, but pressures to improve productivity have prompted major investments in genome sciences and new technologies. The impact of these initiatives on the drug discovery paradigm will be discussed, particularly with respect to shortening time scales between identifying gene sequences and submitting innovative products for regulatory approval.