African Plant May Help Fight
Nov. 21, 2004
(CBS) Each year, people spend more than $40 billion on
products designed to help them slim down. None of them seem to be working very
Now along comes hoodia. Never heard of it? Soon it'll be tripping
off your tongue, because hoodia is a natural substance that literally takes your
It's very different from diet stimulants like Ephedra and
Phenfen that are now banned because of dangerous side effects. Hoodia doesn't
stimulate at all. Scientists say it fools the brain by making you think you’re
full, even if you've eaten just a morsel. Correspondent Lesley Stahl
Hoodia is a bitter-tasting cactus-like plant. 60 Minutes was told
that if it wanted to try hoodia, it would have to go to Africa. Why? Because the
only place in the world where hoodia grows wild is in the Kalahari Desert of
Nigel Crawhall, a linguist and interpreter, hired an
experienced tracker named Toppies Kruiper, a local aboriginal Bushman, to help
find it. The Bushmen were featured in the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”
Kruiper led 60 Minutes crews out into the desert. Stahl
asked him if he ate hoodia. "I really like to eat them when the new rains have
come," says Kruiper, speaking through the interpreter. "Then they're really
When we located the plant, Kruiper cut off a stalk
that looked like a small spiky pickle, and removed the sharp spines. In the
interest of science, Stahl ate it. She described the taste as "a little
cucumbery in texture, but not bad."
So how did it work? Stahl says she
had no after effects – no funny taste in her mouth, no queasy stomach, and no
racing heart. She also wasn't hungry all day, even when she would normally have
a pang around mealtime. And, she also had no desire to eat or drink the entire
day. "I'd have to say it did work," says Stahl.
Although the West is
just discovering hoodia, the Bushmen of the Kalahari have been eating it for a
very long time. After all, they have been living off the land in southern Africa
for more than 100,000 years.
Some of the Bushmen, like Anna Swartz,
still live in old traditional huts, and cook so-called Bush food gathered from
the desert the old-fashioned way.
The first scientific investigation of
the plant was conducted at South Africa’s national laboratory. Because Bushmen
were known to eat hoodia, it was included in a study of indigenous foods.
"What they found was when they fed it to animals, the animals ate it and
lost weight," says Dr. Richard Dixey, who heads an English pharmaceutical
company called Phytopharm that is trying to develop weight-loss products based
Was hoodia's potential application as an appetite suppressant
"No, it took them a long time. In fact, the
original research was done in the mid 1960s," says Dixey.
It took the
South African national laboratory 30 years to isolate and identify the specific
appetite-suppressing ingredient in hoodia. When they found it, they applied for
a patent and licensed it to Phytopharm.
Phytopharm has spent more than
$20 million so far on research, including clinical trials with obese volunteers
that have yielded promising results. Subjects given hoodia ended up eating about
1,000 calories a day less than those in the control group. To put that in
perspective, the average American man consumes about 2,600 calories a day; a
woman about 1,900.
"If you take this compound every day, your wish to
eat goes down. And we've seen that very, very dramatically," says Dixey.
But why do you need a patent for a plant? "The patent is on the
application of the plant as a weight-loss material. And, of course, the active
compounds within the plant. It’s not on the plant itself," says Dixey.
So no one else can use hoodia for weight loss? "As a weight-management
product without infringing the patent, that’s correct," says Dixey.
what does that say about all these weight-loss products that claim to have
hoodia in it? Trimspa says its X32 pills contain 75 mg of hoodia. The company is
pushing its product with an ad campaign featuring Anna Nicole Smith, even though
the FDA has notified Trimspa that it hasn’t demonstrated that the product is
Some companies have even used the results of Phytopharm’s clinical
tests to market their products.
"This is just straightforward theft.
That’s what it is. People are stealing data, which they haven’t done, they’ve
got no proper understanding of, and sticking on the bottle," says Dixey. "When
we have assayed these materials, they contain between 0.1 and 0.01 percent of
the active ingredient claimed. But they use the term hoodia on the bottle, of
course, so they -- does nothing at all."
But Dixey isn’t the only one
who’s felt ripped off. The Bushmen first heard the news about the patent when
Phytopharm put out a press release. Roger Chennells, a lawyer in South Africa
who represents the Bushmen, who are also called “the San,” was appalled.
"The San did not even know about it," says Chennells. "They had given
the information that led directly toward the patent."
The taking of
traditional knowledge without compensation is called “bio-piracy.”
have said, and I'm going to quote you, 'that the San felt as if someone had
stolen the family silver,'" says Stahl to Chennells. "So what did you do?"
"I wouldn't want to go into some of the details as to what kind of
letters were written or what kind of threats were made," says Chennells. "We
engaged them. They had done something wrong, and we wanted them to acknowledge
Chennells was determined to help the Bushmen who, he says, have
been exploited for centuries. First they were pushed aside by black tribes.
Then, when white colonists arrived, they were nearly annihilated.
the turn of the century, there were still hunting parties in Namibia and in
South Africa that allowed farmers to go and kill Bushmen," says Chennells. "It's
The Bushmen are still stigmatized in South Africa, and
plagued with high unemployment, little education, and lots of alcoholism. And
now, it seemed they were about to be cut out of a potential windfall from
hoodia. So Chennells threatened to sue the national lab on their behalf.
"We knew that if it was successful, many, many millions of dollars would
be coming towards the San," says Chennells. "Many, many millions. They've talked
about the market being hundreds and hundreds of millions in America."
end, a settlement was reached. The Bushmen will get a percentage of the profits
-- if there are profits. But that’s a big if.
The future of hoodia is
not yet a sure thing. The project hit a major snag last year. Pharmaceutical
giant Pfizer, which had teamed up with Phytopharm, and funded much of the
research, dropped out when making a pill out of the active ingredient seemed
Dixey says it can be made synthetically: "We've made
milligrams of it. But it's very expensive. It's not possible to make it
synthetically in what’s called a scaleable process. So we couldn’t make a metric
ton of it or something that is the sort of quantity you’d need to actually start
doing something about obesity in thousands of people."
decided to market hoodia in its natural form, in diet shakes and bars. That
meant it needed the hoodia plant itself.
But given the obesity epidemic
in the United States, it became obvious that what was needed was a lot of hoodia
- much more than was growing in the wild in the Kalahari. And so they came here.
60 Minutes visited one of Phytopharm’s hoodia plantations
in South Africa. They’ll need a lot of these plantations to meet the expected
Agronomist Simon MacWilliam has a tall order: grow a billion
portions a year of hoodia, within just a couple of years. He admitted that
starting up the plantation has been quite a challenge.
"The problem is
we’re dealing with a novel crop. It’s a plant we’ve taken out of the wild and
we’re starting to grow it,' says MacWilliam. "So we have no experience. So it’s
different— diseases and pests which we have to deal with."
are they that they will be able to grow enough? "We're very confident of that,"
he says. "We've got an expansion program which is going to be 100s of acres. And
we'll be able – ready to meet the demand.
This could be huge, given the
obesity epidemic. Phytopharm says it’s about to announce marketing plans that
will have meal-replacement hoodia products on supermarket shelves by 2008.
MacWilliam says these products are a slightly different species from the
hoodia Stahl tasted in the Kalahari Desert. "It's actually a lot more bitter
than the plant that you tasted," says MacWilliam.
The advantage is this
species of hoodia will grow a lot faster. But more bitter? How bad could it be?
Stahl decided to find out. "Not good," she says.
Phytopharm says that
when its product gets to market, it will be certified safe and effective. They
also promise that it’ll taste good.
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