Monday, 29 December 2008

Unilever gives up on hoodia, but Phytopharm remains optimistic

Business Day reports that consumer goods giant Unilever has abandoned its attempt to develop a fat-fighting product based on the hoodia plant, dashing hopes that the local San community would profit from the spiny succulent any time soon. Unilever is not the first to fail to commercialise the product; pharma company Pfizer also sought in vain to develop an anti-obesity pill from the plant.

The San traditionally used Hoodia Gordonii, which is indigenous to South Africa and Namibia, to fend off hunger and thirst. An agreement between the South African San Council and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) -- which holds the patent on extracting the active ingredients in the plant -- entitles the San to a share of any profit that might arise from a hoodia weight-loss product that is developed using the council’s intellectual property.

In a short clinical trial that lasted just 15 days, Unilever discovered that the product had potentially dangerous side-effects, including increased blood pressure, and had no significant effect on volunteers’ calorie consumption. The company is said to have invested £20m in hoodia research over the past four years, but has now returned the development rights to UK-based Phytopharm, which licensed the rights from the CSIR in 1997. Phytopharm is still confident it can find commercial weight-management applications for the hoodia extract.

Afro Leo naturally admires the efforts of the various companies to find a saleable product that is safe and reliable -- but he has made a little bet with himself that the success of this quest may happen at a point soon after the CSIR's patent expires, at which point there wouldn't exactly be very much for the San to share.

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