The dramatic story of the commercial development of Hoodia

It is indeed cinematic that after so much expensive and long term research that has been focused on Hoodia, so many case studies, so much controversy about royalties, so much investment by farmers, that the commercial development of P51 failed. P57 is the active ingredient in Hoodia, attributed to the appetite suppressing potential of the plant. Again, it does seem unbelievable that with so many informal Hoodia ‘diet’ products already on the market, both locally and internationally, serving the dieting market, that the pure compound P57 derived from Hoodia gordonii  that this plant (and P57) should eventually fail to meet Unilever’s safety and efficacy standards, resulting in this UK company announcing in November 2008 that it was dropping Hoodia entirely.  One of the challenges in the commercialization of P57 is that the complex organic molecule could not be synthesized and had to be isolated from hoodia – vast quantities of Hoodia. Plantations of Hoodia gordonii were established on the banks of the Orange River, a very frustrating challenge as any excess water (for instance, trying to irrigate small Hoodia seedlings) resulted in ferocious fungal rots. This plant was just not used to en mass cultivation.

The Hoodia gordonii plant. Online source of image..

This failed cultivation and product development is a calamity for South Africa at a time when the country needs agricultural diversification and investment, when towns and cities in the more arid and marginal areas need international investment and new farming crops.  In the business arena, the failure to commercialize P57 for the obesity pharmaceutical market indicates the extreme risk that farmers and big multinational companies take when dealing with a new plant species and developing a new plant product, and that there are no guarantees for success.

Potential subsequent phases of the Hoodia story.

Now that Unilever has withdrawn its interest in the P57 patent, the patent situation reverts back to Phytopharm, which is a company too small to develop products by itself, and so once again, they will need to find a commercial partner.

The problem for Phytopharm and Unilever remains, in that P57 cannot be synthesized in the laboratory and relies on fresh cultivated Hoodia, will remain that unless they have partnerships with farmers in arid areas (could be South Africa, or other arid countries like India, parts of the USA, China). They will not be able to obtain enough material to develop and produce a product line.  Perhaps there is still hope for South African and Namibian Hoodia growers for future partnerships with a big international pharmaceutical entity.

Any subsequent phases of the South African Hoodia commercialisation story should include a fully investigation of the medical “toxicity” claims of Unilever, and perhaps a retesting of this material on human subjects. One of the issues in the effectiveness of Hoodia as an appetite suppressor is the ‘mouth feel’ of fresh raw Hoodia. It literally dried up your mouth and teeth and you don’t feel thirsty or hungry until you mouth recovered! This effect cannot be reproduced in a capsule containing P57 powder.

So, all in all, a failed product for the medical treatment of obesity, but a success for the informal alternate medicines markets where people ‘believe’ in natural products based on advertising ‘hype’.

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