The interest in the commercial development of a new South African crop

It has taken 30 years for the CSIR to isolate the specific appetite suppressing ingredient in Hoodia gordonii, a succulent found in the arid areas of South Africa and Namibia. After the basic chemical work was undertaken by the CSIR in the 1990’s and P57 patented,  the patent for the  compound was licensed to the British pharmaceutical company, Phytopharm in 1997. As the compound cannot be synthesized, it had to be isolated from living plants, and in great quantities.

The plant was successfully grown as a crop in orchards along the Orange River, where some irrigation was needed. The plant proved very diverse in cultivation, with many different flower colours, for example. This may have also been a sign that individual plants would have more or less P57, and that the yield of this compound would not be uniform without further plant breeding to optimize this.

Hoodia products available online. Online source of image.

The active ingredient known as P57 has been patented by the CSIR, with the patent covering six species: H. currorii, H. gordonii, H. lugardii, H. (Trichocaulon) piliferum, and H. (Trichocaulon) officinale. However, the natural product cannot be patented entirely. There is therefore no copyright infringement by manufacturing and selling any natural products derived from H. gordonii or other species that should prove to contain P57, even though such products would also naturally contain P57.  Medications that are reputed to contain Hoodia material are currently sold widely, particularly in the USA and arid countries like Mexico[1] (see below).

 Phytopharm  undertook a clinical study that showed obese people who took P57 (extracted from Hoodia gordonii) ate 1000 calories fewer per day with no adverse side effects.   P57 was  launched as a diet drug, and Pfizer purchased the worldwide marketing rights from Phytopharm for a reported $32 million to develop and market P57 based diet pills. Pfizer originally paid Phytopharm for the rights to market a P57 based diet pill, but after a few year of unsuccessful attempts to make P57 synthetically, Pfizer pulled out of the deal. Apparently P57 is impossible to synthesis artificially, a requirement for testing for Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval.  If a large amount of P57 could not be created inexpensively in the lab, Pfizer was not interested.

While Phytopharm was discouraged by the Pfizer decision, they knew that Hoodia gordonii was ‘too powerful an appetite suppressant’ to give up trying to bring it to the market. In December 2004, Phytopharm announced that Unilever had entered a deal to market Hoodia gordonii in its diet food product line. Therefore, rather than producing diet drugs, it looks like Phytopharm and Unilever will product diet supplements and diet foods with hoodia. As we now know, a small human subjects trial with P57 seemed to show that P57 was not effective as previously thought, and Unilevel stopped its Hoodia/P57 project and all further investment.

The current status is that Phytopharm owns the patent on the P57 molecule, but does not own a patent on the Hoodia gordonii plant, as living, unmodified biological species cannot be patent.  The interest in Hoodia “diet” properties remains huge, as a scan of internet Hoodia product offerings reveals.  There are many companies around the world offering diet preparations containing Hoodia, but use careful wording on the labels so as not to infringe the CSIR/Phytopharm patents. They cannot use the word “P57” for instance.

Unfortunately, the use of Hoodia itself to manufacture weight loss products for the diet markets is not regulated by the patent and also does not draw royalties payable to Phytopharm or the San people. This whole research investment, commercialisation and benefits of Hoodia has slipped away from South Africa and the San people.

In South Africa, Hoodia products are registered under food  laws as a foodstuff.


[1] http:hoodiagordonii.co.za/Hoodia_CITES_inclusion.html. 2005

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