Guardian - This Plant Could Cure Obesity
It's green, prickly and sour, but this plant could cure obesity
and save an ancient way of life
Bushmen of the Kalahari stand to benefit from development of hoodia,
which curbs appetite
Rory Carroll in Johannesburg
Saturday January 4, 2003
Hunting with bows and poisoned arrows over the bleached sands of
the Kalahari, it was sometimes days before the San bushmen had food
or water. So precarious was survival that some believed their god
was a "trickster" who played jokes with the land and their fate.
The San learned that in this arid wilderness of southern Africa
they could trust one thing. Sprouting 6ft high amid the prehistoric
vegetation, green, prickly and sour, it was a plant they called
Hunters would cut a slice, munch it, and within minutes hunger
and thirst would evaporate, leaving a feeling of strength and alertness.
They could travel for days eating nothing else.
The trickster god has played another joke, except this time it
is to the benefit of the San. Xhoba, a member of the Asclepiadaceae
family of plants, is known in English as hoodia, but is more likely
to become better known as P57.
Dotting the Kalahari desert of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia
and Angola, it is being hailed as a wonder plant whose qualities
as an appetite-suppressant could revolutionise treatment of obesity
for 100 million westerners.
Patented by a South African research institute and licensed to
a British Buddhist entrepreneur, the plant is now being developed
by the US drugs giant Pfizer, at the cost of hundreds of millions
of dollars, with the objective of turning it into a pill which will
zap food cravings.
For the San it could be the second time they have been saved by
Xhoba. Their hunter-gatherer culture, stretching back 20,000 years,
has been promised a share of the royalties from the drug.
After years of talks a deal between tribal leaders and the Pretoria-based
Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which owns
the patent, has just been clinched, raising hopes that the San will
receive millions of dollars each year.
The solicitor representing South Africa's aboriginal people, Roger
Chennels, said yesterday that both sides had reached an accord.
"In the last two weeks we have finalised the percentages. The deal
has been struck. It means job opportunities, salaries, scholarships
and the right to grow the plant."
A council of elders who sit on the working group of indigenous
minorities in southern Africa decided at a meeting in Windhoek,
the capital of Namibia, to share the money equally between all the
San scattered across southern Africa, said Mr Chennels.
"They felt very strongly that traditional knowledge was a heritage
which had to be shared. The San in each country will set up an audited
trust. The focus will be on education and training of leaders, though
in some cases the funds will be used to buy land where the San are
Mr Chennels would not say what proportion of the royalties will
go to the impoverished bushmen but left no doubt it will add up
to a meaningful sum for the estimated 100,000 people scattered across
the Kalahari, whose culture was recently feared to be on the verge
Under the accord it is expected that San youths will be given scholarships
to study abroad and those left at home will be employed tending
plantations and teaching scientists what they know about hoodia.
"The scale of the thing is mind-boggling," said Nigel Crawhall,
of the Cape Town-based South African San Institute. "The San are
riding a huge wave in the pharmaceutical industry which is catering
for the body adjustment market. Profits from the drug should be
in the tens of millions of dollars."
The hunters who snacked on hoodia to ward off starvation would
be amazed to know it might end up in a capsule for Americans and
Europeans wanting to trim waistlines, he said.
"It is an affirmation of the value of traditional knowledge. The
challenge for the San community leaders will be to harness these
resources to bring real economic change to their people," said Mr
A big challenge. In some ways today's San resemble certain communities
of the aborigines of Australia and north America: depressed, unemployed,
poor, prone to alcoholism. Optimists hope the San will use the windfall
"You could say it is grim here. There are no jobs and alcohol abuse
is a problem. Children are told to study hard at school but there
are very few opportunities after they graduate," said Betta Steyn,
speaking from a dust-blown craft shop in the Kalahari.
The San in Botswana and Namibia are often regarded as a nuisance
by the authorities and herded into towns. Those in South Africa
were persecuted by the apartheid regime and to redress that grievance
Nelson Mandela's government granted them ownership of more than
Yet they remain impoverished. Many of the Bushmen live in houses
made of grass hundreds of miles from the nearest town, including
one called Hotazel, otherwise known as Hot as Hell. The lucky ones
have some goats. "If this deal works out, the impact will be immense,
it could transform our fortunes," said Ms Steyn.
Some elders attribute aphrodisiac qualities to the plant, though
Pfizer, which makes Viagra, has not marketed that angle. One elder
told the Mail and Guardian in Johannesburg: "When the grandfathers
eat the Xhoba, the grandmothers can't let them out of their sight."
After identifying the relevant bioactive compound the CSIR obtained
a patent in 1997, which it licensed to a Cambridgeshire-based botanical
pharmaceuticals company, Phytopharm, which was founded by Richard
Dixey after he returned from the Himalayas with a passion for Buddhism
and traditional healing.
"We called it P57 because it was the 57th product that we spent
money on. It is the only true appetite suppressant and will help
those who eat a lot of ice cream at 3am and still don't feel full."
Clinical trials in the UK suggested it could reduce appetite by
2,000 calories a day, making it a potential runaway success in a
multi-billion pound industry. Dr Dixey hopes it will be available
on prescription by 2007 after further clinical trials overseen by
Pfizer, which paid Phytopharm $32m for right to develop the drug.