[FoRK] Raw bits on Hoodia
Rohit Khare <
rohit at commerce.net
> on >
Mon Mar 6 09:25:54 PST 2006
an attendee at closed geek confab who lost a noticeable amount of
weight had really positive things to say about his experience with
Hoodia supplements. I'm still skeptical that the supplements contain
the active ingredient to any appreciable level, much less whether
it's a great strategy. Nonetheless, it seemed quite promising, and
odd that it's so hard to synthesize that Pfizer quit... RK
[MPWG] Hoodia - The Catch-22 of Using Traditional Knowledge for Mass
Patricia_DeAngelis at fws.gov Patricia_DeAngelis at fws.gov
Thu Apr 21 14:30:14 CDT 2005
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Hoodia - The Catch-22 of Using Traditional Knowledge for Mass
For some reason, someone, somewhere decided that plant conservation
relevant to some people when they know "what's in it for them."
Recent calls for conservation of medicinal plants have pointed to the
that traditionally used medicine has global health applications and,
therefore, should be conserved. But the truth is, advocating global
medicinal plants can be the ultimate Catch-22. Hoodia's rise through
global marketplace provides a case study for the myriad issues that
when traditionally used botanicals are brought into the mainstream. Not
all of them good - not all of them bad.
Hoodia species are succulents that grow in the deserts of Southern
For thousands of years, San bushmen have controlled their hunger during
long trips or in times of food shortage by chewing Hoodia stems. In
times, the potential global market for this traditional knowledge has
ENORMOUSLY (pun intended!). Countries on all major continents have
declared obesity epidemics. The problem officially went global when, in
October 2004, it was declared at the First International Obesity
"the global epidemic of obesity is completely out of control" (2).
Obviously, then, many people could easily be convinced that this
worth keeping around.
The Catch-22? Hoodia is primarily wild-harvested and global demand for
this product, without proper management, has the potential to
resource. But, the complexity of properly managing medicinal plant
resources makes it very difficult for the general public, to whom this
material would be mass marketed, to know whether they are doing the
resource any harm (or any good, for that matter).
In a message about Hoodia that I posted to the listserve in January 2005
(3), I raised many of the issues that arise when traditional plant
marketed to the masses. Questions about population dynamics and
sustainability, ethnobotany and benefit-sharing, patents and indigenous
knowledge protection. In addition, the entire genus of Hoodia was
listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES; http://
Thus, Hoodia provides insight to yet another dimension of botanical
development: regulation and conservation. Hoodia has it all!
According to a recent article in the New York Times (1), "In the past
years, after reports that Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, had begun
looking into hoodia's potential as an appetite-control drug, the
hoodia that has been dried, powdered and fashioned into capsules has
growing fast. "The demand is very high, and the supply is ridiculously
low," said Hugh Lamond, who runs Herbal Teas of Africa, one of a
hoodia exporters. "It's like shark-feeding time."
In the following excerpt from same the article, two important points are
raised by Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, director of weight management at the
University of Pittsburgh: "...even if eating the plant dampens the San
people's hunger, she said, that does not mean that processed supplements
necessarily work the same way. For one thing, people who take the
supplements do not get as much exercise as the San people do and have
easier access to food" (1).
I would venture to guess that many of the misconceptions about
traditionally-used botanicals (and their efficacy) are borne from the
belief that: 1) the processed form will result in the same effect,
the botanical will work magic. The fallacy in these two beliefs is
acknowledged and, when a botanical product doesn't "prove itself," it
further cements the idea that botanicals are quackery. The New York
article goes on to raise several other insightful issues that the
often not made aware of: Issues of efficacy, knowledge transfer,
of active compounds, and safety concerns.
So, to get back to my Catch-22 assertion, I merely wish to point out
advocating traditional knowledge for mass consumption in the name of
conservation carries with it a hefty responsibility to educate the
that there may be more to plant conservation than merely "what's in
-Patricia De Angelis
(1) An appetite killer for a killer appetite? Not Yet; By MARY
New York Times; Published: April 19, 2005
(2) Obesity epidemic "out of control" ; By ANIA LICHTAROWICZ; BBC News;
Published October 31, 2004
(3) To see my January 13, 2005 post to the MPWG listserve, go to the
Patricia S. De Angelis, Ph.D.
Botanist - Division of Scientific Authority
Chair - Plant Conservation Alliance - Medicinal Plant Working Group
US Fish & Wildlife Service
4401 N. Fairfax Dr., Suite 750
Arlington, VA 22203
Working for the conservation and sustainable use of our green natural
Twee Rivieren Journal; Bushmen Squeeze Money From a Humble Cactus
By GINGER THOMPSON (NYT) 987 words
Published: April 1, 2003
TWEE RIVIEREN, South Africa - The educated city people a government
minister, a chief executive and several directors of the nation's
most important scientific organizations -- traveled at sunrise to
this barren region of the Kalahari Desert to see for themselves the
cactus that has been trumpeted as a natural wonder.
But when they stood before it, a puny cluster of spiny stalks that
looked like wrinkled cucumbers, the magnitude of the moment escaped
''That's it, huh?'' asked Dr. Ben Ngubane, minister of arts, culture,
science and technology. ''How do you know this one is safe to eat?''
A grin from Petrus Valbooi, a leader of the San people, or Bushmen,
who scrape life from this barren landscape, reassured the skeptics.
He cut off a stalk, shaved off its spines, and sliced into its milky
center, bidding them to taste.
That's where its power lies, he told them. Indeed.
From a desert weed known as hoodia, one of the world's oldest and
least developed peoples hopes to enjoy its first taste of prosperity.
The San have sucked on hoodia for generations, principally to raise
their energy and fight hunger during long hunting trips.
Now, Pfizer, the international pharmaceutical giant, has begun work
on an appetite suppressant from the plant, and agreed to share the
profits. The deal, which includes the government, is considered a
landmark in the field of international property rights.
The company, with a British-based research partner, has spent
millions working to develop the drug from the active chemical in the
obscure runt of a cactus, hoping to make it as profitable as Viagra.
Here among the San, the concept of wealth has begun to sink in. The
first payment to the San, some $30,000, was made last month, and
there are already plans to buy land and build clinics.
But at the formal signing of the agreement in March, most of the
Bushmen seemed happy just knowing that the modern world had
recognized that there remained wealth in ancient knowledge, and that
at least one tradition in their dying culture might be saved.
''I am very happy because it was not written that this day would
happen,'' said Mr. Valbooi, who arrived at the ceremony wearing
traditional shorts made from deerskin and a crown made from the tail
of a wild cat. ''Now I know that God has not abandoned the Bushmen.''
It was a happy ending to a protracted legal conflict that began in
1996 when the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a
government-financed laboratory, patented the active chemical of the
hoodia, called P57, without acknowledging the San.
The government then licensed rights to develop P57 to the British
pharmaceutical research company Phytopharm, which sublicensed the
rights to Pfizer.
After years of legal wrangling, an agreement was reached between the
San and the government. Under the agreement, some 100,000 Bushmen in
four countries -- South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Angola -- will
receive at least three more payments during the clinical testing of
Then the South African government will pay the San some 6 percent of
the royalties it receives once the drug goes on the market.
Roger Chennells, a lawyer who represented the San in their legal
fight, acknowledged that the community was getting the smallest slice
of what could be a multibillion-dollar pie. ''If this is a cop-out,''
he said, ''then it is a cop-out I can live with because it is going
to bring these people benefits no government has ever given them.''
The San trace their history back some 150,000 years, to the world's
first humans. The hunter-gatherers are still considered expert
trackers, with abilities to read animal movements from the sand.
But they became the prey under South Africa's colonial rulers, who
shot them for sport. Under apartheid, the San were enslaved and
robbed of their ancestral land. The South African military used them
to find black opposition leaders living on the run.
To the marvel of anthropologists, the San have been able to cling to
their traditions. After the end of white rule, South Africa's first
black president, Nelson Mandela, returned them to their lands, as
arid as the face of the moon.
Today, however, fewer than a dozen people speak their language, and
even fewer know how to hunt. Children learn traditional dances, but
prefer polyester T-shirts and tennis shoes over animal skins. Most
young people abandon the desert for schools and jobs in cities.
Jan Vander Westhuitzen, 47, a Bushman tracker, said hoodia is
''Hoodia used to cover the desert, '' he said, cutting a leaf from a
shriveled specimen and stuffing it in a deerskin medicine pouch.
''Now the land is too dry.''
He said the plant had been a center of life for the Bushmen for as
long as he could remember. A sip of its bitter liquid gave them
enough energy to walk all day or make love through the night. It
cured a morning hangover, or, brewed like tea, soothed an aching
He seemed to delight at the idea that its secret was out.
''I do not think we are being robbed of our knowledge,'' he said. ''I
think that people who know how to live from the earth should share.''
Photo: Visitors to the Kalahari Desert cluster gingerly around a
hoodia plant, a spiny cactus that produces a chemical being developed
as a drug by Pfizer. (Joao Silva for The New York Times)
Map of South Africa highlighting Twee Rivieren: Twee Rivieren is in
the Kalahari, traditional home of the San people.
An Appetite Killer for a Killer Appetite? Not Yet
By MARY DUENWALD
Published: April 19, 2005
The way the San people of the Kalahari Desert describe it, Hoodia
gordonii is nature's hunger buster. Break off a spiny, cucumber-
shaped stalk from this succulent plant, feed on its milky center and
you will have the energy to set off on a long hunt unencumbered by
Or, if you live far from the arid regions in South Africa, Botswana
and Namibia where hoodia grows, simply buy one of many new brands of
In the past few years, after reports that Pfizer, the pharmaceutical
company, had begun looking into hoodia's potential as an appetite-
control drug, the market for hoodia that has been dried, powdered and
fashioned into capsules has been growing fast. "The demand is very
high, and the supply is ridiculously low," said Hugh Lamond, who runs
Herbal Teas of Africa, one of a handful of hoodia exporters. "It's
like shark-feeding time."
One supplement, called Hoodoba, advertises online that it "kills your
appetite, ups your mood and gives you waves upon waves of energy."
The makers of Pure Hoodia, another brand, boast that the product
contains an active ingredient that "fools your brain into believing
you are full, making it easier to lose that excess weight."
Yet no human studies gauging the effectiveness or safety of the
hoodia plant or of supplements made from it have been published.
That is why many physicians who specialize in weight loss do not
"In good conscience, I can't recommend something when the benefits
are unproven and the health risks are unknown," said Dr. Jonathan
Waitman, a nutrition specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell
hospital's weight control program.
Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the weight management center at
the University of Pittsburgh, said it would not be surprising to find
foods "that might stimulate or suppress hunger."
But even if eating the plant dampens the San people's hunger, she
said, that does not mean that processed supplements necessarily work
the same way. For one thing, people who take the supplements do not
get as much exercise as the San people do and have easier access to
Even assuming hoodia can affect appetite, there are many other
unknowns, including how much of the supplement a person needs to
consume to achieve that effect, how often someone can safely take it
and how long it will keep working.
One unpublished study by a British company found that nine men who
took an unspecified amount of P57, said to be the active ingredient
in hoodia, twice a day for 15 days ended up eating fewer calories and
losing more body fat than did a like-size group of men who took
placebos. But the study was small and short. And because it has not
been published in a journal, scientists cannot examine the details of
how it was conducted or what it found.
The study was done by Phytopharm, a British company that in 1997
acquired a license from South Africa's Council for Scientific and
Industrial Research to develop P57. The council had previously
isolated P57 from Hoodia gordonii and identified it as the ingredient
responsible for appetite control.
Phytopharm teamed up with Pfizer to develop a drug containing P57.
But by mid-2003, Pfizer lost interest. Kate Robins, a spokeswoman for
Pfizer in New London, Conn., explained that early research suggested
that P57 would be too difficult to synthesize and could not readily
be made into a drug in pill form.
Now, Phytopharm has teamed up with Unilever, the consumer products
company that makes cleaning products, deodorant and a wide variety of
foods, to look for ways to use P57 in foods and beverages. That
effort will require studies to gauge the ingredient's safety and
effectiveness, and no products are expected for at least three years,
said Trevor Gorin, a spokesman for Unilever in London.
The new demand for hoodia, a wild plant, has led to a sudden surge in
collecting it. As a result, it has been placed on the endangered
species list. Mr. Lamond of Herbal Teas and other exporters have
established hoodia farms in South Africa to provide a legal source of
Unilever has done preliminary tests on 10 different supplement brands
available in the United States, Mr. Gorin said, and has found that
two contain no significant quantities of P57, four contain small
amounts of it, and four contain significant amounts.
Hoodia supplements come in a variety of formulations, some containing
other ingredients like green tea extract and cocoa extract. Bottles
containing 60 capsules of varying strengths cost anywhere from $20 to
How does hoodia work? Laboratory research, supported by Pfizer, in
which P57 was injected into the brains of rats, indicated that it
might act on the hypothalamus, a center of appetite control. Dr.
David MacLean, an endocrinologist at Brown Medical School, who
conducted the study, said the substance appeared to alter energy
metabolism in that part of the brain.
But Dr. MacLean said that P57 was easily broken down by the liver, so
it might be hard to take in enough of it to ensure that it had an
effect. He cautioned that currently available supplements might be
"I question whether there is really enough of the active ingredient
in there to do much," Dr. MacLean said.
The possibility that hoodia is processed in the liver is cause for
concern, given that many obese people often have liver abnormalities
that could compound any side effects, said Dr. Michael Steelman, a
weight loss specialist in Oklahoma City. "Anyone who uses this should
use it under a doctor's supervision," Dr. Steelman said.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What is Hoodia?
Hoodia is a succulent plant found in the Kalahari desert of South
Africa. The genus encompasses a number of varieties of plant of which
Hoodia gordonii is one species. Hoodia plants are succulents, not
cacti, although they do have a spiny appearance similar to cacti.
There are some other products that claim to contain Hoodia. Are they
the same as Phytopharm's product?
Only Phytopharm's patented Hoodia gordonii product is botanically
verified to contain pure Hoodia gordonii and has quantified levels of
the chemical constituents that produce the anti-obesity effects.
Importantly, only Phytopharm's Hoodia gordonii product has had
extensive safety studies performed and been clinically proven to
reduce calorie intake and body fat. The benefit sharing to the CSIR
and the San people is only generated by Phytopharm's patented Hoodia
How has Hoodia gordonii been used in the past?
For many centuries the San bushmen of the Kalahari desert have used
Hoodia plants as a food. The species Hoodia gordonii was less often
used because of its lingering bitter taste being considered
unpleasant. However, in times of hardship, or being away from
familiar areas, it was sometimes eaten.
How did the CSIR's research into Hoodia gordonii commence?
Due to the tradition of food use of Hoodia plants, certain species
were included in a scientific research project established by the
South African statutory council known as CSIR (Council for Scientific
and Industrial Research) to screen a large number of bush foods. As
part of the screening process, extracts of plants were made and
tested for toxic effects. Surprisingly, it was observed that the
Hoodia extracts caused a decrease in appetite and body weight in
animals that did not appear to be due to a direct toxic effect of the
Do all Hoodia species reduce appetite?
Only Phytopharm's Hoodia gordonii extract has been proven to decrease
calorie intake in human volunteers.
Have the benefits of Hoodia gordonii been clinically proven?
In 2001 Phytopharm completed a double-blind, placebo-controlled
clinical study in overweight, but otherwise healthy volunteers using
an extract of Hoodia gordonii. The large doses of extract caused a
statistically significant reduction in the average daily calorie
intake. In addition, a statistically significant reduction in body
fat content was also observed compared to the placebo group after two
How long does it take for Hoodia gordonii to have an effect?
A clinical trial conducted by Phytopharm demonstrated that repeat
dose administration of large doses of Hoodia gordonii extract caused
a statistically significant decrease in daily calorie intake. By day
15 the calorie intake had decreased by approximately 1000 kcal per day.
Does Hoodia gordonii have any side effects?
In the clinical study described above the safety data are consistent
with a satisfactory overall safety profile, however further
scientific studies are required to establish the safety profile of
Hoodia gordonii extract. These are currently ongoing at Phytopharm.
Is Hoodia gordonii patented?
The CSIR has submitted patents in territories all over the world
relating to Hoodia gordonii. Phytopharm has an exclusive licence for
When will the product containing the Hoodia gordonii extract be
The necessary clinical trials and other studies to ensure the safety
of the extract will take a few years before a product will be available.
Who are the San people and how do they and South Africa benefit from
sales of Hoodia gordonii?
The CSIR have entered a benefit sharing agreement with an
organisation representing the San people, to ensure that any
financial benefit flowing from the commercialisation of the patented
Hoodia gordonii extract is shared with people whose traditional
knowledge first led to the investigation of the plant. In addition,
Phytopharm has worked closely with the CSIR and appreciated the
importance of the continuing development to South Africa. To this
end, Phytopharm has collaborated with the CSIR and opened a clinical
supplies unit and a botanical supplies unit in South Africa.
What does the inclusion of Hoodia in Appendix II of CITES mean?
CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of
Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between
governments to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild
animals and plants does not threaten their survival. There are 166
Parties (States bound by the Convention). Species covered by CITES
are listed in three appendices. Appendix II includes species not
necessarily threatened with extinction, but for which trade must be
controlled in order to avoid utilisation incompatible with their
survival. Following a review at the Conference of Parties in Bangkok
(October 2004) it was decided to include Hoodia onto Appendix II of
CITES. This will help ensure that all harvest operations and trade of
Hoodia plant material are controlled at an international level in
order to conserve indigenous plant populations within the range
states (South Africa, Namibia and Botswana).
Hoodia gordonii is rare, is the source sustainable?
Hoodia gordonii is very rare and is protected by national
conservation laws in South Africa and Namibia. It can only be
collected or grown with a permit. Wild stocks are also extremely
limited so Phytopharm has established plantations over the past 5
years to grow sustainable quantities of Hoodia gordonii exclusively
for Phytopharm's product. There is a continuing development programme
by Phytopharm to ensure sustainable supplies for Phytopharm's product
in the future.
Last Updated: 07.01.06 © Phytopharm plc
Also consulted: http://www.hoodiascam.com/index.php
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