The South African arid area succulent plant, Hoodia gordonii, was found to contain a unique appetite suppressing chemical called P51. The plant species had been used by local San people as a survival food, appetite suppressant and source of moisture, and this was the lead that led to the CSIR’s research.P51 was patented in South Africa in 1988 by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1988 and there has been a long struggle to develop P51 as a medical product for obesity.
There have been several attempts to achieve full commercial development of P51 as a pharmaceutical product. However, in 2008, Phytopharm, the patent holder at that time, took a decision to withdraw from the commercialization of this plant, based on the so-called ‘toxicity’ of the product according to a small clinical trial. The failed commercialization of this compound represents a dramatic failed opportunity to commercialize a novel plant species and for a biodiversity-rich country like South Africa to capitalize on its own biodiversity and create businesses from this unique plant. However, Hoodia tablets, teas and dried Hoodia products are still available online, attesting to the consumer ‘belief’ in this product and its online hype. These products accrue no royalties to South Africa because the CSIR patent only covers P51.
The commercial development of Hoodia has been a challenge because of the number of issues that it has encompassed, from the initial food-related research at the CSIR, to the chemistry and patenting of P57, to access and benefit sharing concerns and then breakthroughs with the San people, to illegal harvesting issues and registration of the plant as a CITES II plant, to its use as a dieting aid and all the marketing hype associated with this. The safety and efficacy testing to comply with FDA regulations in the USA is another component being handled by Phytopharm.
At the time the original research was carried out by the CSIR Division of Food Science and Technology, there was not much interest in the plant in a pharmaceutical sense. In more recent times, however, obesity has emerged as a growing global health problem, and the registration of a drug that had appetite suppressing properties with no side effects would be guaranteed economic success.