Obesity – a growing global problem and an ‘enormous’ market opportunity, written by Sue Jean Taylor.

The global obesity product market is worth about a staggering $6 billion annually and is expected to grow substantially along with the global obesity epidemic. There is an ongoing search by international pharmaceutical companies for products that control the appetite and yet have no side effects. The P57 active compounds from Hoodia gordonii seemed to be the perfect molecule to supply this market need. Yet after decades of research, the Hoodia discovery and product process seems set to unravel, based on the decision of the current patent licensee, Unilever, to withdraw from Hoodia research and development, stating that the plant has toxic effects.

Obesity is developing into a serious global epidemic in which our lifestyles are implicated, most notably access to fast foods and sugar and a decrease in exercising. There are currently more than one billion overweight adults worldwide with the fast food and prepared food industries bearing the brunt of the blame (refs) and even in South Africa, obesity has reached significant levels (refs refs).  There is strong evidence of increased health risks associated with obesity for life threatening diseases like such as coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and certain types of cancer. The key to success in the anti-obesity prescription drug market is to develop drugs that will also improve these obesity-associated risk factors, assist in the maintenance of weight loss, and be safe for long-term treatment.

Unfortunately the treatment of obesity still remains an unmet medical need and therefore represents a huge market opportunity for safe and efficacious drugs for treating obesity. The Anti-Obesity Prescription Drug Market grew by 80.6 percent between 1998 and 1999, from $187.5 million to $338.6 million in revenues. Steady growth is expected to continue over the forecast period. This is the market into which the patented P57 compound was aimed.

Market research studies have been done to investigate trends in the obesity products market, and show that revenues in this industry totaled $735 Million in 2002 and is projected to reach $2.00 billion by 2009, and $6 billion by 2011.  Also, the market for low fat foods and drinks is also expected to grow (refs).


Increased risks of obesity are everywhere in society. Online source of image.

Current anti-obesity drugs are only palliative, i.e. they treat the symptoms, but for the future treatment of obesity, functional genomics research programs have yielded valuable information about genes, disease pathways and drug targets.  Market participants are focusing R&D efforts on genomics studies that will identify genes implicated in obesity. These genes can then serve as potential targets for drug development. One significant step has been the elucidation of the leptin signaling pathway which controls appetite via the hypothalamus. Manufacturers are also directing their energies to characterizing gene pathways involved in lipid biosynthesis and energy homeostasis.

The global problem of obesity is a problem of too much easily available high energy food

The global problem of obesity cannot be met solely by dieting products and anti-obesity prescription drugs alone and it is imperative that the food industry change many of their products and marketing tactics to demonstrate that they are sincere in not being part of the problem, but part of the solution. Consumer education is equally important.

Obesity is also about food choices and information. Online image.

The global industry of dieting and weight management is also huge and developing fast, and is often controversial because of its link to fashion trends. As well as the development of new products, consumer awareness of nutrition has grown in recent years, and value and volume sales of diet foods and drinks have risen over the past five years.

The diet-related food and drink market is expected to grow by 3.1% in Europe and 3.6% in the US between 2006 and 2012. With dieting already an integral part of Western eating habits, the pharmaceutical and diet product companies aim to look for further growth opportunities, including new product development in key markets such as the UK, Europe, the US and Asia-Pacific. Many Hoodia products fall into the category of dieting and weight management products, and to do this, they don’t invoke the P57 patent as the patent doesn’t cover Hoodia and Hoodia material in themselves.

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