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    Magic molecule ... and the millionaire bushmen
    June 23 2003

    A cactus in the Kalahari desert may save the West from obesity and bring millions of dollars to an impoverished African tribe, writes Tom Mangold.
    Imagine this. A pill that kills the appetite and attacks obesity, is organic, with no chemicals added, has no known side effects, and contains a miracle molecule that fools the brain into believing you are full and even stops you thinking about food.
    A mirage? A product as likely as the pill that turns water into petrol? No. It's true and it's here. And I know it works because I've tried it.
    Deep inside the arid Kalahari desert, which intrudes into South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, grows an ugly looking cactus (actually a succulent) called the Hoodia plant. It thrives in temperatures that boil your brain - 50 degrees plus, and it takes years to mature.
    When scientists at the South African Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research were routinely testing the cactus for commercial or medicinal value, they discovered to their amazement that the plant contained a new molecule, unknown to man, since christened P.57.
    The Eureka moment came when the boffins from CSIR checked with the San tribe of bushmen, equivalent to the Aborigines of Australia and among the world's oldest and most primitive hunter-gatherers, who have historically eaten the Hoodia during their hunting trips in the Kalahari. To stave off the worst of the hunger pangs during their trips across infertile lands, they chewed the Hoodia. They've been eating this for thousands of years and believe me, you won't see a fat San today.
    Once the South Africans realised what they had, they sold the license for P.57 to a small British bio-pharma-ceutical company, Phytopharm, which has an ethical policy of rewarding the Third World for pharmaceutical breakthroughs that make money for the First World.
    As soon as the implications of P.57 were absorbed by the British, Phytopharm sold the development and marketing rights to the giant Pfizer Corporation for $US32 million ($A47.5million). They in turn have invested a further $US400 million in a product that could rival their own Viagra for profits.
    When I travelled to the Kalahari recently to try it for myself, I met families of the San bushmen, a sad, impoverished and displaced tribe, still unaware that they are sitting on a green/goldmine. If the Hoodia works as most believe it will, the 100,000 San strung along the edge of the Kalahari will become overnight millionaires on royalties negotiated on their behalf by their "white-knight", South African lawyer Roger Chennells. They'll need all the help they can get to handle the lottery win. Currently many smoke industrial quantities of marijuana, suffer from alcoholism, and have neither possessions nor any sense of the value of money. One notable exception - their highly intelligent negotiator, Petrus Valboie, who will be working to create and help administer a trust fund for his tribe, doesn't own the shirt on his back or the chinos he travels in.
    The truth is no one has grasped what the magic molecule means for their fat counterparts in the developed world. More than 100 million people in the developed world are now clinically obese. Soon it will be statistically safer to smoke than to overeat. A pandemic of obesity is sweeping the world and in its wake come the attendant plagues of diabetes and heart attacks.
    Sure, you can try every appetite suppressant on the market until those amphetamine "jiggers" give you the permanent shakes, pay hundreds of dollars for every fashionable medical injection, or slavishly follow each new diet fad, but the results are awfully similar. Ninety per cent of us will finish up where we started - overweight and still eating too much. And for the very fat - an early death is often predictable.
    The truth about food after 40 is that it is required for maintenance only. We really don't need to eat that much to keep healthy, trim and fit. The problem is we live in a culture that forces food at us. In America, people already snack all day. There are no meal times. We think too much about food, make too many ceremonies around it. But how can we stop?
    The miracle of Hoodia is that it seems to do it for you. According to Dr Richard Dixey, the boss of Phytopharm, here's how P.57 actually works: "There's a part of your brain, the hypothalamus, and within that mid-brain there are nerve cells that sense glucose sugar. Now when you eat, blood sugar goes up because of the food, and these cells start firing and now you are full.
    "But the problem with the overweights and the obese is that they will still sneak down the fridge at two in the morning and hit the HaagenDaz, consume huge amounts of calories and still not feel full," Dixey says.
    "What the Hoodia seems to contain is a molecule that's about ten thousand times as active as glucose. It goes to the mid-brain and actually makes those nerve cells fire as if you were full. But you haven't eaten food. Nor do you want to. That's how it works."
    When Dixey organised the first animal trials for Hoodia he was astonished to discover that rats, a species that will eat literally anything, not only stopped eating, but even lost interest in what to a rat is a five-star cordon bleu delicacy, salami and chocolate.
    When the first human clinical trial was conducted by Phytopharm, the company chose a morbidly obese group of people from Leicester, England, and placed them in a "phase 1 unit", a place as close to prison as it gets. All the volunteers could do was read papers and watch television - and eat. Half the group were given Hoodia, half were given placebo. At the end of 15 days, the group on Hoodia had reduced their food intake by 1000 calories a day. Given the average daily diet is around 2200 calories, this was a stunning success.
    So we set out for the Kalahari desert four hours north of Cape Town in search of the cactus. It turns out to be an unattractive plant that sprouts about 10 tentacles the size of a long cucumber. Each tentacle is covered in spikes, which need to be carefully peeled. Inside is a slightly unpleasant-tasting, fleshy plant. I ate about half a banana size - and later so did my cameraman. It was about 6pm. I did not then believe in the tooth fairy or the Hoodia.
    Soon after we began the four-hour drive back to Cape Town. The plant is said to have a feel-good almost aphrodisiac quality, and I have to say we felt good. But more significantly, we didn't think about food. Our brains really were telling us that we were full. It was a magnificent deception. Dinner time came and went. We reached our hotel at about midnight and went to bed without thinking of food. Neither of us wanted nor did we eat breakfast. I had a very light lunch but consumed it without appetite and very little pleasure. Partial then full appetite returned slowly after 24 hours. It was no scientific test but that plant worked on me.
    The San bushmen all tell me the plant has a distinct aphrodisiac effect too. I didn't experience that, but I did have a feeling of well-being that was most unusual.
    Valboie says the plant is a wonder-plant, giving energy to scour the desert by day and a new strength to make love all night. It allegedly cures hangovers and settles an upset stomach too.
    Chennells, the San's lawyer, gave some Hoodia to a fat dog and it immediately stopped eating. He tried it himself and he lost his appetite. Did it have an aphrodisiac effect on him? "Let's just say I was in the desert, alone, and I felt very strong," he smiled.
    If there are side effects - and the clinical trials have still got three to four years to run, they have yet to emerge. Chennells is ecstatic: "The San will finally throw off thousands of years of oppression, poverty, social isolation and discrimination. We will create trust funds with their Hoodia royalties and the children will join South Africa's middle classes in our lifetime." The royalties will allow the San (who were once hunted like animals by the whites) to buy their own land, and to join the 21st century. The irony is that a primitive and impoverished Third World tribe will be passing its historic knowledge of the miracle molecule to a developed world groaning under the weight of its insatiable appetites.
    Says Chennells: "I envisage Hoodia cafes in London and New York, salads will be served and the Hoodia cut like cucumber onto the salad. It will need flavouring to counter its unpleasant taste, but if it has no side effects and no cumulative side effects - and it hasn't for the San as far as we know, then the fat world will have found the silver bullet it's been looking for."
    But the new green/gold rush in South Africa has already brought in the snake-oil salesmen and bandits. Earlier this year, in Namibia, a group of men was stopped by the police as they were taking Hoodia plants out of the sand. The men claimed to have permission from the CSIR in Pretoria, but this was a lie. They were one of several groups of bio-pirates, scouring the vast emptiness of the Kalahari looking to steal the precious Hoodia and smuggle it out of southern Africa.
    I discovered some of the Hoodia has already reached the United States where a "grey" market in the Hoodia has already taken off. You can check the net for Hoodia products, but be careful, as the ones I found are worthless frauds. One popular "Hoodia" appetite suppressant sells under the name of Lipodrene. I had the pill independently analysed in London and it turns out to have "no discernible Hoodia" in it. I would be equally careful of trying any other alleged Hoodia pills. Pfizer have sole marketing rights, the clinical trials have three or four years to run so be patient.
    And don't try travelling to the Kalahari to find the cactus on your own. Not only is it illegal to export it, it will die long before you step off the plane in Australia. Besides, the Kalahari is inhospitable, and the only people who can help you locate it in the wild, the San bushmen, are the very people who won't help as they would be robbing themselves of their inheritance.
    Besides, the plant is becoming more rare. The South African CSIR are now cultivating it in industrial quantities at a secret location under armed guard. The truth is, that if the plant delivers on its initial promise, it will do for fat people what pain killers have done for headaches, and Viagra for sex. But it still has a way to go before it can be synthesised into a simple pill.
    There is one way in which you might be able to beat the system legally. The Hoodia thrives only in deserts at a temperature of 50 degrees and over. Australia has such an environment. It's just possible, the plant grows wild here too.
    Tom Mangold and Dominick Ozanne's film The Anti-fat Pill and the Bushmen was made for BBC TV's Correspondent program.

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