I wish to congratulate you on an excellent newspaper. Specifically I wish to congratulate Dr Anina Lee on her recent article, The hype about Hoodia, which appeared in the 26 August edition of The Village NEWS.

I am a retired medical scientist with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and 21 years’ experience as a senior Lecturer/Researcher in the Pharmacology Department of Stellenbosch University (1976 – 1997). I am also very much interested in medicinal plants indigenous to South Africa and was the first Chairman of the Indigenous Plant Use Forum (IPUF) (1992-1996) which was founded by the FRD.

The professional depth, veracity, and ease of reading of Dr Lee’s article was a pleasure.
I would make it required reading for all medical and pharmaceutical science students, as well as shop owners selling plant extracts.

The article raises a few important aspects, such as the following:

Why did the CSIR license P57 to Phytopharm in the UK and not have it tested, for at least safety, in South Africa, and why have the clinical results on humans been kept secret up till now?

It cannot be argued that South Africa was not in a position to test a plant extract for safety.
I have facts to prove this. I was the team leader of a research team at Stellenbosch Medical School, Department of Pharmacology, who tested an extract of the African Potato (Hypoxis hemerocallidea) for anti-cancer potential in human beings.

We obtained official permission from the MCC (called the SAHPRC today) to conduct Phase 1 and 2 clinical trials which included extensive safety tests. (See: ‘A Phase 1 trial of Hypoxoside as an oral prodrug for cancer therapy – absence of toxicity’, B.J. Smit, C.F. Albrecht et al., SAMJ, 785, No.9, 1995, 865-870.). No evidence could be found that this treatment caused the cure of a single cancer patient and the research was eventually terminated after about 10 years and an expenditure of about R50 million in today’s money.

According to Dr Lee’s article, not a single scientific paper has been published on the safety aspects of Hoodia in humans, by the CSIR, Phytopharm, and Pfizer or Unilever (who obtained licences from the CSIR), all of whom studied the plant extracts or P57. Dr Lee mentions a recent publication by Prof Carene Smith of Stellenbosch University, who tested Hoodia on so-called “fat rats”. She found that the plant extract did cause weight loss but this included muscle tissue as well as fat tissue. Prof Carene described the results as “frightening” – according to Dr Lee.

Prof Smith comments in a published paper as follows: “The role of the pregnane glycoside P57 – commonly accepted to be responsible for appetite suppression – has been questioned recently. Furthermore, a variety of physiological side-effects associated with consumption of the plant in extracted form questions its suitability for consumption. Although adverse effects have been described before, the relative abundance of non-peer-reviewed data originating from patent documents and lay publication for advertising, which specifically only focus on beneficial outcomes, skews the view of the risk-benefit-balance.”

I believe the important lesson to be learnt from this fiasco is that the safety for humans of any indigenous South African plant product being sold as a medicine, should be tested according to the specifications of the SAHPRC (South African Health Products Regulatory Authority).

In light of the fact that South Africa has not discovered and developed a single drug while there are about 10 000 drugs in the world today, as well as the fact that South Africa has about 23 000 indigenous plants of which it is estimated about 1 000 have medicinal potential, I believe the time has come for South Africa to seriously consider our magnificent plant kingdom as a potential source of new drugs with proven safety and efficacy.

This would stimulate the economy and create jobs, especially now that the gold mines are approaching the end of this lucrative source of wealth.

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