Hoodia and the Pharaceutical Industry
With the growing obesity epidemic in this country and around the world, the pharmaceutical industry is making great efforts to develop appetite suppressing drugs. Most diet suppressants are stimulants, and can have harmful side effects, like the now banned Ephedra and Fen-phen. The plant Hoodia gordonii has been used for centuries by the San people of Southern Africa as an appetite suppressant. In 1997, the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) isolated the active ingredient in Hoodia, P57. Hoodia is not a stimulant, and from its use by the San people appears safe. Thus the pharmaceutical industry was interested in trying to synthesize P57 for the mass market.
The patent to P57 is owned by Phytopharm, a United Kingdom-based pharmaceutical company. They originally partnered with Pfizer to attempt to synthesize P57. While they managed to synthesize small quantities, the process was determined to be too expensive, and Pfizer pulled out of the deal in 2002.
Phytopharm continued working with Hoodia, this time trying to grow the plant on a commercial scale. This has some difficulties attached, as Hoodia gordonii is a wild cactus that had never been domesticated. However, the plantings in South Africa and Namibia have not yet matured, so all Hoodia currently available probably came from wild sources. While it may be more effective to take Hoodia by eating some of the plant and thus getting the active ingredient, there has actually been a great deal of difficulty in getting the plant to grow anywhere else, including gardens and greenhouses, and so plantations have been set up in South Africa by drug companies trying to cultivate Hoodia. However, the drug companies are running into difficulties, and are actually growing a slightly different species from the one originally found to be an appetite suppressant. This species tastes slightly bitter, but the pharmaceutical companies are trying to make the product taste better. This species was chosen because it grows faster.
In April of 2006, Phytopharm, now partnered with Unilever, announced that it developed techniques to extract P57 from Hoodia on a commercial basis. They hope to have a product to market in 2008, most likely in the form of diet shakes and bars. This will be after the completion of clinical studies needed to ensure the safety and effectiveness of Hoodia for human use. As of present, there have been no proper clinical trial to determine in Hoodia extract is safe for human use or effective at promoting weight loss. The only published clinical study of Hoodia involves the injection of Hoodia extract into the brains of rats. An unpublished study, which occasionally makes its way onto the internet, involved a very small sample of volunteers who took either P57 or a placebo. Until a proper double-blind clinical study is done using human subjects, no reputable pharmaceutical firm will attempt to market a Hoodia weight loss medication.
Thus the future of Hoodia appears to be in the form of processed natural plants, indicating a potential future crop for the people of South Africa and the San Bushmen in particular.