Hoodia and Obesity
Hoodia Gordonii The Answer to Obesity in the
February. 3, 2003
SAHM VENTER AND IAN JOHNSTON
"IT IS my
food, my water and my medicine," said Kalahari bushman Hans Kortman, fondly
describing the hoodia gordonii cactus he was chewing.
apparently nondescript hoodia gordonii plant has two properties Kortman failed
to mention. It promises to provide the pharmaceutical industry with its Holy
Grail - a safe, natural cure for obesity - and to make him and the other bushmen
of the Kalahari very wealthy indeed.
landmark deal, due to be signed in a matter of days, the San tribe of southern
Africa are to become the first indigenous people to be awarded intellectual
property rights over a drug from hoodia gordonii whose medicinal properties they
first recognised. They very nearly missed out on any payment at all.
thousands of years the San tribe have eked out a meagre living in the Kalahari.
The medicinal uses of the hoodia gordonii cactus have been handed down from
generation to generation; its capacity to stave off hunger and thirst has proved
invaluable to the San hunters who have to spend days without food or water while
searching for their quarry on the Kalahari’s arid planes.
potential of the plant as a cure for obesity was recognised by the British firm
Phytopharm, which patented the plant’s appetite-suppressant drug (P57) and sold
the rights to the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, the owner of the impotence drug
Viagra, for £13m. However, Phytopharm, based in Cambridge, initially cut the San
tribe - who number around 100,000 in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Angola
- out of the deal, mistakenly claiming that they had died out.
two years of legal wrangling, all the parties have finally agreed a deal which
will recognise the San people’s ancient knowledge of the hoodia’s properties.
Once it is signed, the agreement will represent a milestone in the long-running
controversy that has surrounded the commercial exploitation of medicinal plants
that have been used by indigenous tribes since pre-history.
Gordonii from the Kalahari desert can cure obesity
amount the San will receive has still to be decided, but there has already been
talk of a payment of just over £6m a year in recognition of their traditional
knowledge. If P57 proves commercially viable, it will prove hugely lucrative for
drugs companies. The market for slimming aids in the US alone is already worth
£6bn, and rates of obesity in the West are rising fast.
Vaalbooi, 58, chairman of the San Council, is overjoyed that a deal has finally
been struck. "I feel proud that this can mean something for our community," he
people’s roots in southern Africa go back 150,000 years. They are recognised as
the world’s oldest indigenous culture. It is almost a miracle that they still
exist after hundreds of years of persecution. They were captured as slaves,
ravaged by European diseases, shot by Boer farmers - who regarded them as vermin
- on organised hunts as recently as the beginning of the 20th century, and
forcibly removed from their land under apartheid. Repeated abuses left them
living in poverty with a high incidence of alcoholism.
the fall of the apartheid regime, then South African president Nelson Mandela
moved quickly to return a large tract of land to the San, and this has helped
spark a revival of their culture. Nevertheless, many of the former
hunter-gatherers are still reliant on subsistence farming and making craftwork
newly enfranchised San discovered two years ago that not only had an arrangement
to exploit hoodia been made without them, but that it was suggested that they
were extinct, they instructed lawyers to investigate.
knowledge was taken to make money for other people," said Vaalbooi.
negotiation followed between the San and South Africa’s Council for Scientific
and Industrial Research (CSIR), finally resulting in the royalty deal.
The CSIR and Phytopharm have started a plantation at a secret location in
the Northern Cape province to conduct further research on hoodia gordonii, which
can only be grown in desert conditions, with a view to mass cultivation.
"I am very
proud that I can work with the CSIR. I must say that at the age of 58, this is
the first organisation that’s working with us," said Vaalbooi.
Chennels, a lawyer for the San Council, is at pains to point out the irony of an
appetite suppressant drug could be developed from the "traditional knowledge of
perhaps the hungriest people in the world".
commenting on the significance of the deal, he added: "For the first time
traditional people’s knowledge is protected from commercialisation. Whatever
amount gets set here could become a benchmark for sharing of money. Other people
could demand the same."
Crook, an anthropologist at St Andrews University who has carried out a research
project on indigenous property rights funded by the Economic and Social Research
Council, said: "What you patent is the industrial application, the process. In a
sense these people are entering into a very altruistic agreement."
testing of P57 continues, the San will receive a first "milestone" royalty
payment next year.
said it was "cautiously enthusiastic" about the potential of the hoodia plant,
which is one of more than 100 drugs the company is testing as treatments for
human health problems.
has undergone early trials, a drug made from hoodia still faces years of tests
to meet stringent criteria of Pfizer itself and drug regulatory agencies
worldwide. If P57 gains regulatory approval it could go on the market in 2008.
Viljoen, a lecturer in pharmacology and chemistry at the University of the
Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said: "I believe that this is going to be huge,
far bigger than Viagra. Judging from the magnitude of the obesity problem, this
will be enormously big. I don’t think we can even begin to comprehend the impact
obesity kills more than 280,000 people a year and the market for diet drugs is
worth more than £2bn a year. In Britain the proportion of overweight men and
women is 62% and 53% respectively.
leadership is currently discussing what to do with the money from the hoodia. It
is expected that it will be invested in improving the health, education and
housing of the people, and securing their land and water.
"It is the
largest amount they have ever had to spend," explained Andries Steenkamp, a
member of the San Council.
that thrashing out the deal had given the San new-found confidence.
not afraid that our old knowledge can be stolen because now we can follow it