What has the power to cure a global epidemic, generate hundreds of millions of dollars and save a dying culture? Some believe that such powers lie in a scrubby little South African cactus called the hoodia. The plant, which is native to the Kalahari Desert region, contains a substance that some say can safely and naturally suppress the appetite. In a world in which obesity has reached epidemic proportions, the implications of such a claim are far-reaching.
The plant has spawned an unlikely partnership between the Kalahari?s San bushmen, and corporate giants Phytopharm and Unilever. Because the San hold intellectual property rights to hoodia, and Phytopharm and Unilever share patent and licensing privileges, all stand to make millions on Hoodia if its active ingredient, P57, proves to be safe and effective for commercial manufacture.
Hoodia gordonii is a genus of succulent plants in the family Asclepiadaceae. It is light green, with cucumber-sized, thorn-covered stems. It grows in scattered clumps and has saucer-shaped flowers and bitter-tasting flesh. The San people of Southwest Africa have been using hoodia for centuries—sucking on (or eating) its flesh to stave off hunger and thirst during long hunting trips.
Anthropologists first documented the bushmen?s use of hoodia as a thirst and appetite suppressant more than 60 years ago, but it wasn?t until the 1980s that South Africa?s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research undertook the first scientific studies on the plant. When its early studies showed significant weight loss in lab animals given hoodia, the CSIR decided to patent the plant?s active ingredient, which it named P57. P57 is believed to suppress the appetite by acting on the nerve cells in the brain that sense glucose. By mimicking the effect of glucose in the midbrain, P57 is said to stimulate the nerve cells in the brain that tell us we?re full.
While long-term studies on P57 are lacking, recent studies seem to support the CSIR?s original findings. An American study presented in 2001 at the annual meeting of the Professional Research Scientists on Experimental Biology reported reductions of food intake and body weight among both lean and obese rats following three-week trials using various forms of hoodia. Similarly, more recent clinical trials using human subjects showed a 30 percent to 40 percent reduction in caloric intake among obese subjects who were administered P57.
In 1997, the CSIR licensed its P57 patent rights to British pharmaceutical company Phytopharm. Phytopharm, in turn, subleased the patent to pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, giving it developing and marketing rights to P57. Intending to develop an appetite-suppressing drug, Pfizer invested $21 million in the research and development of hoodia. Without ever reaching commercial production of an appetite-killing pill, Pfizer pulled out of its agreement with Phytopharm in 2003.
Most recently, Phytopharm has re-directed its hoodia hopes away from pharmaceuticals and toward the meal replacement market. In December 2004, the company granted exclusive global license of its hoodia extract to consumer products company Unilever Plc. Together, the companies are collaborating on a five-stage research and development program that will evaluate hoodia?s safety and efficacy.
Phytopharm is growing hoodia on plantations in South Africa and plans to use the plant in its natural form, in diet shakes and bars. The company is confident that they can produce enough of the plant to meet anticipated demand for its meal-replacement products, which are expected to hit supermarket shelves by 2008. In the meantime, the publicity and hype surrounding hoodia is fueling demand and igniting controversy. Counterfeiters and bio-pirates who hope to profit from the hoopla are coming out of the woodwork—marketing dozens of illegitimate hoodia products on the Internet. Many of these products have been found to contain no hoodia at all, while others contain hoodia that was obtained in violation of intellectual property regulations.
The San surely weren?t aware of their intellectual property rights when they began sharing their traditional knowledge of the hoodia cactus with outsiders, but they are now. Through their legal representative, Roger Chennels, the San have negotiated a profit-sharing agreement with the CSIR. Under the agreement, the San will receive a percentage of royalties that result from any marketing of P57. A trust has been established through the South African San Council to manage and distribute any income from hoodia royalties, much of which will go toward programs to protect and preserve San culture.
Believed to have been in existence for some 30,000 years, the San once inhabited much of South Africa. Waves of migrating African nations and apartheid regimes, however, have dispossessed the San from their territories and pushed them into the country?s southwest corner. Today, the San who remain are physically dispersed and report a fading sense of culture and community. Many of them see the commercial success of hoodia as the key to the prosperity of their culture.
It?s hard to ignore hoodia?s ironic history. The very same plant that the San have been using for generations to squelch hunger pangs is suddenly a hot commodity in a world of overeaters. Who knows, hoodia may turn out to be the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry?s Holy Grail—and save an indigenous culture from extinction.
Kristen Lewis is a freelance writer in Arvada, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 3/p. 108