Unilever dumps plans for Hoodia diet pill

Tamar Kahn. Business Day. Dec 22, 2008.

CAPE TOWN--Consumer goods company Unilever has abandoned its attempts to develop a fat-fighting product based on the hoodia plant, dashing hopes that the local San community would profit from the spiny succulent any time soon.

Unilever's frustrated effort follows the failure of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to develop an anti-obesity pill from the plant, and raises questions about the safety and efficacy of a host of products stocked by health stores that claim to contain hoodia extract. The bitter Hoodia Gordonii, which is indigenous to SA and Namibia, was traditionally used by the San to fend off hunger and thirst. In terms of an agreement between the South African San Council and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which holds the patent on extracting the active ingredients in the plant, the San are entitled to a share of any profit that might arise from a hoodia weight-loss product that is developed using the council's intellectual property. "Despite our previous success at combining beneficial properties of natural products with everyday foods, our latest assessment is that using Hoodia Gordonii extract in a Unilever-branded product cannot meet our high standards for safety and efficacy," company spokesman Trevor Gorin said in response to questions.

Unilever tested a drink containing hoodia extract on healthy volunteers in a small clinical trial that lasted 15 days. It found the product had potentially dangerous side effects, including increased blood pressure, and had no significant effect on volunteers' calorie consumption, he said. This study, together with other information Unilever has, leads us to believe that it will not be possible to launch a mass-market food or beverage product under Unilever's brands, he said.

Unilever, which invested GBP20m in its hoodia research over the past four years, has now returned the development rights to UK-based Phytopharm, which licensed the rights from the CSIR in 1997. The two companies are still negotiating the disposal of Unilever's dried hoodia stocks, and the handover of land in SA used to cultivate the plant. Phytopharm's head of functional foods, Simon McWilliam, said the company was confident it could still find commercial weight-management applications for the hoodia extract. The company was seeking potential new partners in pharmaceutical and veterinary products, as well as functional foods, he said. "Phytopharm expected to finalise its business review of hoodia within the first quarter of next year. Phytopharm had tested many of the products on the market that claimed to contain hoodia. We have trouble finding any of the active ingredients in them. They are fraudulent products, making promises to the public which (they cannot fulfil)," he said in a telephone interview. Despite the optimism surrounding the San Council's deal with the CSIR in 2003, it has so far received only a single payment of about R500000. In terms of the San Council's agreement with the CSIR, it is entitled to 8% of all milestone payments Phytopharm pays to the CSIR, and 6% of royalties arising from the sale of hoodia-containing products.

Phytopharm paid the CSIR $500000 in 2000 following its deal with Pfizer, and another GBP350020 after it licensed the hoodia rights to Unilever. The CSIR paid the San Council's Hoodia Trust R560000 in May 2005.

The Hoodia Gordonii, which is indigenous to SA and Namibia, was traditionally used by the San to fend off hunger and thirst.