60 Minutes on Hoodia—Agreement and Dispute
EDITORIAL
60 Minutes on Hoodia
Agreement and Dispute

ongratulations to CBS’s 60 Minutes and correspondent Lesley Stahl for their coverage of the Hoodia story this past November. When told that they had to go to Africa to taste Hoodia, they did. After sampling it and assessing its effect, CBS proclaimed that “Hoodia is a natural substance that literally takes your appetite away.” It is different from items such as ephedra and phen-fen, because it doesn’t have a stimulating effect. “Scientists say it fools the brain by making you think you’re full, even if you’ve eaten just a morsel,” reported Stahl.

After tasting Hoodia, Stahl said that she had no aftereffects, nor a bad aftertaste, nor a queasy stomach, nor a racing heart. And she reported that she also wasn’t hungry for the remainder of the day, even at mealtime, when hunger pangs would be normal for her. She had no desire to eat. “I’d have to say it did work,” confirmed Stahl.

So far, so good … until the appearance of Dr. Richard Dixey, founder and head of an English company called Phytopharm. Dixey’s firm has licensed Hoodia from South Africa’s national laboratory, a government entity that has identified P57, an active ingredient that they claim is responsible for the appetite-satisfaction characteristic of Hoodia. Phytopharm is currently trying to develop weight-loss products based on Hoodia. According to Dixey, the original research was done in the mid-1960s, yet it took the South African national laboratory 30 years to isolate and identify the specific appetite-suppressing ingredient in Hoodia. They then patented it and licensed it to Phytopharm.

When asked by CBS why a patent for a plant was needed, Dixey replied, “The patent is on the application of the plant as a weight-loss material—and, of course, the active compounds within the plant. It’s not on the plant itself.” Note that he says compounds (with an s), so there may be other active ingredients, not yet fully identified. Next he goes on to say that no one can use the plant for weight management without infringing the patent.

Yet of the three criteria for validating a patent—that the idea be novel, useful, and nonobvious—at least one of these is challengeable. The idea of Hoodia for weight management is not new, because the appetite-satisfaction characteristic of Hoodia has been known for a long time. The civilized world found out about it in 1937, when a Dutch anthropologist observed its effects. So it is doubtful that the patent will withstand scrutiny.

Of the other accusations Dixey hurls at the supplement industry, the idea that no one is selling an effective product is easily addressed by the success of Hoodia in the marketplace. People won’t continue to buy a weight-loss product unless it works. As for his ragging on the supplement industry for not measuring the active compounds in the plant (there may be others, per Dixey, that are not yet fully identified), it is disingenuous to criticize the competition unless he stays with P57.

Curiously, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer teamed with Phytopharm for a while, but dropped out after running into a cost barrier involving synthesis of the identified molecule. So Phytopharm’s commercial pursuit of the active molecule as a weight-management drug has ended, and even they have turned to the whole plant and decided to market it in its natural form, in diet shakes and bars.

But Phytopharm’s entry into the marketplace won’t happen until they can grow enough Hoodia on their budding plantations in South Africa to satisfy worldwide demand. Will supply keep up with demand in the near future? Stay tuned.

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