The answer to obesity in the West?
"IT IS my food, my water and my medicine," said Kalahari bushman Hans Kortman, fondly describing the cactus he was chewing.
But the apparently nondescript plant has two properties Kortman failed to mention. It promises to provide the pharmaceutical industry with its Holy Grail - a safe, natural cure for obesity - and to make him and the other bushmen of the Kalahari very wealthy indeed.
In a landmark deal, due to be signed in a matter of days, the San tribe of southern Africa are to become the first indigenous people to be awarded intellectual property rights over a drug whose medicinal properties they first recognised. They very nearly missed out on any payment at all.
For thousands of years the San tribe have eked out a meagre living in the Kalahari. The medicinal uses of the hoodia cactus have been handed down from generation to generation; its capacity to stave off hunger and thirst has proved invaluable to the San hunters who have to spend days without food or water while searching for their quarry on the Kalahari’s arid planes.
The potential of the plant as a cure for obesity was recognised by the British firm Phytopharm, which patented the plant’s appetite-suppressant drug (P57) and sold the rights to the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, the owner of the impotence drug Viagra, for 13m. However, Phytopharm, based in Cambridge, initially cut the San tribe - who number around 100,000 in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Angola - out of the deal, mistakenly claiming that they had died out.
Now, after two years of legal wrangling, all the parties have finally agreed a deal which will recognise the San people’s ancient knowledge of the hoodia’s properties. Once it is signed, the agreement will represent a milestone in the long-running controversy that has surrounded the commercial exploitation of medicinal plants that have been used by indigenous tribes since pre-history.
The exact amount the San will receive has still to be decided, but there has already been talk of a payment of just over 6m a year in recognition of their traditional knowledge. If P57 proves commercially viable, it will prove hugely lucrative for drugs companies. The market for slimming aids in the US alone is already worth 6bn, and rates of obesity in the West are rising fast.
Petrus Vaalbooi, 58, chairman of the San Council, is overjoyed that a deal has finally been struck. "I feel proud that this can mean something for our community," he said.
The San people’s roots in southern Africa go back 150,000 years. They are recognised as the world’s oldest indigenous culture. It is almost a miracle that they still exist after hundreds of years of persecution. They were captured as slaves, ravaged by European diseases, shot by Boer farmers - who regarded them as vermin - on organised hunts as recently as the beginning of the 20th century, and forcibly removed from their land under apartheid. Repeated abuses left them living in poverty with a high incidence of alcoholism.
But after the fall of the apartheid regime, then South African president Nelson Mandela moved quickly to return a large tract of land to the San, and this has helped spark a revival of their culture. Nevertheless, many of the former hunter-gatherers are still reliant on subsistence farming and making craftwork for tourists.
When the newly enfranchised San discovered two years ago that not only had an arrangement to exploit hoodia been made without them, but that it was suggested that they were extinct, they instructed lawyers to investigate.
"Our knowledge was taken to make money for other people," said Vaalbooi.
Months of negotiation followed between the San and South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), finally resulting in the royalty deal.
The CSIR and Phytopharm have started a plantation at a secret location in the Northern Cape province to conduct further research on hoodia, which can only be grown in desert conditions, with a view to mass cultivation.
"I am very proud that I can work with the CSIR. I must say that at the age of 58, this is the first organisation that’s working with us," said Vaalbooi.
Roger Chennels, a lawyer for the San Council, is at pains to point out the irony of an appetite suppressant drug could be developed from the "traditional knowledge of perhaps the hungriest people in the world".
But, commenting on the significance of the deal, he added: "For the first time traditional people’s knowledge is protected from commercialisation. Whatever amount gets set here could become a benchmark for sharing of money. Other people could demand the same."
Dr Tony Crook, an anthropologist at St Andrews University who has carried out a research project on indigenous property rights funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, said: "What you patent is the industrial application, the process. In a sense these people are entering into a very altruistic agreement."
While testing of P57 continues, the San will receive a first "milestone" royalty payment next year.
Pfizer said it was "cautiously enthusiastic" about the potential of the hoodia plant, which is one of more than 100 drugs the company is testing as treatments for human health problems.
While it has undergone early trials, a drug made from hoodia still faces years of tests to meet stringent criteria of Pfizer itself and drug regulatory agencies worldwide. If P57 gains regulatory approval it could go on the market in 2008.
Dr Alvaro Viljoen, a lecturer in pharmacology and chemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said: "I believe that this is going to be huge, far bigger than Viagra. Judging from the magnitude of the obesity problem, this will be enormously big. I don’t think we can even begin to comprehend the impact economically."
In America obesity kills more than 280,000 people a year and the market for diet drugs is worth more than 2bn a year. In Britain the proportion of overweight men and women is 62% and 53% respectively.
The San leadership is currently discussing what to do with the money from the hoodia. It is expected that it will be invested in improving the health, education and housing of the people, and securing their land and water.
"It is the largest amount they have ever had to spend," explained Andries Steenkamp, a member of the San Council.
He added that thrashing out the deal had given the San new-found confidence.
"We are not afraid that our old knowledge can be stolen because now we can follow it up."
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