Brussels, 08 Jan 2003
A cactus native to the Kalahari Desert region of southern Africa and used by indigenous San bushmen to stave off hunger during long hunting expeditions is to be developed into a remedy to fight obesity.
The six foot plant, called Hoodia, contains an active ingredient which research has shown could reduce appetite by up to 2,000 calories a day. The remedy was originally patented by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and licensed by British company Phytopharm. The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is now developing a pill based on the plant, also known as P57, which they hope will banish food cravings and have a major impact on the six billion euro global slimming aid market.
More than 100 million people worldwide are thought to be at risk from conditions related to obesity, such as heart disease and diabetes. Pfizer hopes that the remedy, which has already been tested on healthy volunteers in Britain, will be available in pill form by 2007.
Phytopharm and the CSIR came in for criticism when it was revealed that the two sides had made financial arrangements for development of the drug without consulting the San tribe, who's traditional knowledge led to the discovery of Hoodia's appetite-suppressing properties.
The explanation offered by Phytopharm chief executive Richard Dixey was that he thought the nomadic people had died out. Since discovering that around 100,000 San still populate regions of Angola, South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia, a deal has been struck that will see the bushmen receive a proportion of the profits from the sale of the drug.
The very existence of the San tribe had been in question, with a dispersed population and lack of opportunities creating the very real threat of extinction. Under the new deal, it is hoped that millions of euro could be generated each year to fund education programmes, create jobs, and allow the San to buy land.
All of which should ensure a healthy future for the tribe, as well as those set to benefit from the new wonder drug. In one way or another, the survival of the San owes much to the special properties of the Hoodia plant.
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