The Age - Magic Molecule
Magic molecule ... and the millionaire bushmen
June 23 2003
A cactus in the Kalahari desert may save the West from obesity
and bring millions of dollars to an impoverished African tribe,
writes Tom Mangold.
Imagine this. A pill that kills the appetite and attacks obesity,
is organic, with no chemicals added, has no known side effects,
and contains a miracle molecule that fools the brain into believing
you are full and even stops you thinking about food.
A mirage? A product as likely as the pill that turns water into
petrol? No. It's true and it's here. And I know it works because
I've tried it.
Deep inside the arid Kalahari desert, which intrudes into South
Africa, Namibia and Botswana, grows an ugly looking cactus (actually
a succulent) called the Hoodia plant. It thrives in temperatures
that boil your brain - 50 degrees plus, and it takes years to mature.
When scientists at the South African Centre for Scientific and
Industrial Research were routinely testing the cactus for commercial
or medicinal value, they discovered to their amazement that the
plant contained a new molecule, unknown to man, since christened
The Eureka moment came when the boffins from CSIR checked with
the San tribe of bushmen, equivalent to the Aborigines of Australia
and among the world's oldest and most primitive hunter-gatherers,
who have historically eaten the Hoodia during their hunting trips
in the Kalahari. To stave off the worst of the hunger pangs during
their trips across infertile lands, they chewed the Hoodia. They've
been eating this for thousands of years and believe me, you won't
see a fat San today.
Once the South Africans realised what they had, they sold the license
for P.57 to a small British bio-pharma-ceutical company, Phytopharm,
which has an ethical policy of rewarding the Third World for pharmaceutical
breakthroughs that make money for the First World.
As soon as the implications of P.57 were absorbed by the British,
Phytopharm sold the development and marketing rights to the giant
Pfizer Corporation for $US32 million ($A47.5million). They in turn
have invested a further $US400 million in a product that could rival
their own Viagra for profits.
When I travelled to the Kalahari recently to try it for myself,
I met families of the San bushmen, a sad, impoverished and displaced
tribe, still unaware that they are sitting on a green/goldmine.
If the Hoodia works as most believe it will, the 100,000 San strung
along the edge of the Kalahari will become overnight millionaires
on royalties negotiated on their behalf by their "white-knight",
South African lawyer Roger Chennells. They'll need all the help
they can get to handle the lottery win. Currently many smoke industrial
quantities of marijuana, suffer from alcoholism, and have neither
possessions nor any sense of the value of money. One notable exception
- their highly intelligent negotiator, Petrus Valboie, who will
be working to create and help administer a trust fund for his tribe,
doesn't own the shirt on his back or the chinos he travels in.
The truth is no one has grasped what the magic molecule means for
their fat counterparts in the developed world. More than 100 million
people in the developed world are now clinically obese. Soon it
will be statistically safer to smoke than to overeat. A pandemic
of obesity is sweeping the world and in its wake come the attendant
plagues of diabetes and heart attacks.
Sure, you can try every appetite suppressant on the market until
those amphetamine "jiggers" give you the permanent shakes, pay hundreds
of dollars for every fashionable medical injection, or slavishly
follow each new diet fad, but the results are awfully similar. Ninety
per cent of us will finish up where we started - overweight and
still eating too much. And for the very fat - an early death is
The truth about food after 40 is that it is required for maintenance
only. We really don't need to eat that much to keep healthy, trim
and fit. The problem is we live in a culture that forces food at
us. In America, people already snack all day. There are no meal
times. We think too much about food, make too many ceremonies around
it. But how can we stop?
The miracle of Hoodia is that it seems to do it for you. According
to Dr Richard Dixey, the boss of Phytopharm, here's how P.57 actually
works: "There's a part of your brain, the hypothalamus, and within
that mid-brain there are nerve cells that sense glucose sugar. Now
when you eat, blood sugar goes up because of the food, and these
cells start firing and now you are full.
"But the problem with the overweights and the obese is that they
will still sneak down the fridge at two in the morning and hit the
HaagenDaz, consume huge amounts of calories and still not feel full,"
"What the Hoodia seems to contain is a molecule that's about ten
thousand times as active as glucose. It goes to the mid-brain and
actually makes those nerve cells fire as if you were full. But you
haven't eaten food. Nor do you want to. That's how it works."
When Dixey organised the first animal trials for Hoodia he was
astonished to discover that rats, a species that will eat literally
anything, not only stopped eating, but even lost interest in what
to a rat is a five-star cordon bleu delicacy, salami and chocolate.
When the first human clinical trial was conducted by Phytopharm,
the company chose a morbidly obese group of people from Leicester,
England, and placed them in a "phase 1 unit", a place as close to
prison as it gets. All the volunteers could do was read papers and
watch television - and eat. Half the group were given Hoodia, half
were given placebo. At the end of 15 days, the group on Hoodia had
reduced their food intake by 1000 calories a day. Given the average
daily diet is around 2200 calories, this was a stunning success.
So we set out for the Kalahari desert four hours north of Cape
Town in search of the cactus. It turns out to be an unattractive
plant that sprouts about 10 tentacles the size of a long cucumber.
Each tentacle is covered in spikes, which need to be carefully peeled.
Inside is a slightly unpleasant-tasting, fleshy plant. I ate about
half a banana size - and later so did my cameraman. It was about
6pm. I did not then believe in the tooth fairy or the Hoodia.
Soon after we began the four-hour drive back to Cape Town. The
plant is said to have a feel-good almost aphrodisiac quality, and
I have to say we felt good. But more significantly, we didn't think
about food. Our brains really were telling us that we were full.
It was a magnificent deception. Dinner time came and went. We reached
our hotel at about midnight and went to bed without thinking of
food. Neither of us wanted nor did we eat breakfast. I had a very
light lunch but consumed it without appetite and very little pleasure.
Partial then full appetite returned slowly after 24 hours. It was
no scientific test but that plant worked on me.
The San bushmen all tell me the plant has a distinct aphrodisiac
effect too. I didn't experience that, but I did have a feeling of
well-being that was most unusual.
Valboie says the plant is a wonder-plant, giving energy to scour
the desert by day and a new strength to make love all night. It
allegedly cures hangovers and settles an upset stomach too.
Chennells, the San's lawyer, gave some Hoodia to a fat dog and
it immediately stopped eating. He tried it himself and he lost his
appetite. Did it have an aphrodisiac effect on him? "Let's just
say I was in the desert, alone, and I felt very strong," he smiled.
If there are side effects - and the clinical trials have still
got three to four years to run, they have yet to emerge. Chennells
is ecstatic: "The San will finally throw off thousands of years
of oppression, poverty, social isolation and discrimination. We
will create trust funds with their Hoodia royalties and the children
will join South Africa's middle classes in our lifetime." The royalties
will allow the San (who were once hunted like animals by the whites)
to buy their own land, and to join the 21st century. The irony is
that a primitive and impoverished Third World tribe will be passing
its historic knowledge of the miracle molecule to a developed world
groaning under the weight of its insatiable appetites.
Says Chennells: "I envisage Hoodia cafes in London and New York,
salads will be served and the Hoodia cut like cucumber onto the
salad. It will need flavouring to counter its unpleasant taste,
but if it has no side effects and no cumulative side effects - and
it hasn't for the San as far as we know, then the fat world will
have found the silver bullet it's been looking for."
But the new green/gold rush in South Africa has already brought
in the snake-oil salesmen and bandits. Earlier this year, in Namibia,
a group of men was stopped by the police as they were taking Hoodia
plants out of the sand. The men claimed to have permission from
the CSIR in Pretoria, but this was a lie. They were one of several
groups of bio-pirates, scouring the vast emptiness of the Kalahari
looking to steal the precious Hoodia and smuggle it out of southern
I discovered some of the Hoodia has already reached the United
States where a "grey" market in the Hoodia has already taken off.
You can check the net for Hoodia products, but be careful, as the
ones I found are worthless frauds. One popular "Hoodia" appetite
suppressant sells under the name of Lipodrene. I had the pill independently
analysed in London and it turns out to have "no discernible Hoodia"
in it. I would be equally careful of trying any other alleged Hoodia
pills. Pfizer have sole marketing rights, the clinical trials have
three or four years to run so be patient.
And don't try travelling to the Kalahari to find the cactus on
your own. Not only is it illegal to export it, it will die long
before you step off the plane in Australia. Besides, the Kalahari
is inhospitable, and the only people who can help you locate it
in the wild, the San bushmen, are the very people who won't help
as they would be robbing themselves of their inheritance.
Besides, the plant is becoming more rare. The South African CSIR
are now cultivating it in industrial quantities at a secret location
under armed guard. The truth is, that if the plant delivers on its
initial promise, it will do for fat people what pain killers have
done for headaches, and Viagra for sex. But it still has a way to
go before it can be synthesised into a simple pill.
There is one way in which you might be able to beat the system
legally. The Hoodia thrives only in deserts at a temperature of
50 degrees and over. Australia has such an environment. It's just
possible, the plant grows wild here too.
Tom Mangold and Dominick Ozanne's film The Anti-fat Pill and the
Bushmen was made for BBC TV's Correspondent program.