It took the South African national laboratory 30 years to isolate and identify the specific appetite-suppressing ingredient in hoodia. When they found it, they applied for a patent and licensed it to Phytopharm.
Phytopharm has spent more than $20 million so far on research, including clinical trials with obese volunteers that have yielded promising results. Subjects given hoodia ended up eating about 1,000 calories a day less than those in the control group. To put that in perspective, the average American man consumes about 2,600 calories a day; a woman about 1,900.
"If you take this compound every day, your wish to eat goes down. And we've seen that very, very dramatically," says Dixey.
But why do you need a patent for a plant? "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," says Dixey.
So no one else can use hoodia for weight loss? "As a weight-management product without infringing the patent, that's correct," says Dixey.
But what does that say about all these weight-loss products that claim to have hoodia in it? Trimspa says its X32 pills contain 75 mg of hoodia. The company is pushing its product with an ad campaign featuring Anna Nicole Smith, even though the FDA has notified Trimspa that it hasn't demonstrated that the product is safe.
Some companies have even used the results of Phytopharm's clinical tests to market their products.
"This is just straightforward theft. That's what it is. People are stealing data, which they haven't done, they've got no proper understanding of, and sticking on the bottle," says Dixey. "When we have assayed these materials, they contain between 0.1 and 0.01 percent of the active ingredient claimed. But they use the term hoodia on the bottle, of course, so they -- does nothing at all."
But Dixey isn't the only one who's felt ripped off. The Bushmen first heard the news about the patent when Phytopharm put out a press release. Roger Chennells, a lawyer in South Africa who represents the Bushmen, who are also called "the San," was appalled.
"The San did not even know about it," says Chennells. "They had given the information that led directly toward the patent."
The taking of traditional knowledge without compensation is called "bio-piracy."
"You have said, and I'm going to quote you, 'that the San felt as if someone had stolen the family silver,'" says Stahl to Chennells. "So what did you do?"
"I wouldn't want to go into some of the details as to what kind of letters were written or what kind of threats were made," says Chennells. "We engaged them. They had done something wrong, and we wanted them to acknowledge it."
Chennells was determined to help the Bushmen who, he says, have been exploited for centuries. First they were pushed aside by black tribes. Then, when white colonists arrived, they were nearly annihilated.
"About the turn of the century, there were still hunting parties in Namibia and in South Africa that allowed farmers to go and kill Bushmen," says Chennells. "It's well documented."
The Bushmen are still stigmatized in South Africa, and plagued with high unemployment, little education, and lots of alcoholism. And now, it seemed they were about to be cut out of a potential windfall from hoodia. So Chennells threatened to sue the national lab on their behalf.
"We knew that if it was successful, many, many millions of dollars would be coming towards the San," says Chennells. "Many, many millions. They've talked about the market being hundreds and hundreds of millions in America."
In the end, a settlement was reached. The Bushmen will get a percentage of the profits -- if there are profits. But that's a big if.
The future of hoodia is not yet a sure thing. The project hit a major snag last year. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which had teamed up with Phytopharm, and funded much of the research, dropped out when making a pill out of the active ingredient seemed beyond reach.