Herbal answer to Prozac will promote San culture

Guest post by Sean Carey

Think of a South African herb, and the chances are that Hoodia gordonii will come to mind. The much-publicized succulent, which has been traditionally used by the San to ward off hunger and thirst on hunting trips, was the focus of 15 years of research and development by UK-based company, Phytopham — first with pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, and then with international conglomerate, Unilever, which planned to use the herb in its Slim Fast range of weight-loss products.

Traditional preparation of Sceletium by a Nama goatherd.
Traditional preparation of Sceletium by a Nama goatherd. Courtesy: Nigel Gericke.
Unfortunately for Unilever, which invested around £20 million in R&D, double blind and other trials using P57, an extract of Hoodia, indicated that there were a number of adverse effects including a rise in blood pressure and digestive disturbances amongst some subjects. The result was that last November, Phytopharm returned the commercialisation rights of P57 to South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). CSIR now plans to review the data from 14 clinical trials and decide whether it is worth pursuing further projects.

This development was undoubtedly extremely disappointing for the San, who after a dispute about intellectual property rights had successfully secured an agreement in 2003 to receive a share of the royalties from sales of the appetite-suppressant.

However, there is much better news about another South African ground-covering succulent, Sceletium tortuosum, more familiarly known as kagoued (in Afrikaans meaning “something to chew”) or kanna, another herb traditionally used by the San as an analgesic, antispasmodic, sedative, tonic and mood elevator. The herb, which can also be consumed as a tea or taken as a snuff, has been the subject of intensive research by HGH Pharmaceuticals, a company set up in 2007 by South African-born medical practitioner and ethnobotanist, Nigel Gericke.

Gericke and some of his colleagues, including his wife, Olga Gericke, then a trainee psychiatrist, first experimented with Sceletium in 1991. In an interview for this month’s African Business magazine, Gericke told me: “It was very clear that there was a dose response – low doses had a subtle effect providing a sense of serenity and at the same time a sense of alertness, while excessive doses caused a transient euphoria.”

The encounter with Sceletium convinced Gericke and his colleagues that the herb had great potential as a novel botanical health product. The fact that mid-range doses had a mood elevating and anti-anxiety effect, while larger doses were similar to the side-effects seen with the use of selective serotonin reactive inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac made it very intriguing from a pharmacological perspective.

With an estimated 24,000 plant species within its borders, South Africa is surpassed only by Brazil and Indonesia in terms of biodiversity.

However, in order to avoid the destruction of wild stocks of botanicals and to prevent bio-piracy, the Biodiversity Act (2004) and the Patents Amendment Act (2005) require that any company investigating a biological resource needs to have a bio-prospecting permit, and also share profits with indigenous peoples on the basis of their “traditional knowledge”. Accordingly, a permit was awarded to HGH Pharmaceuticals for its patented Sceletium extract, Zembrin, by Buyela Sonjica, South Africa’s minister of water and environmental affairs, at a ceremony in October 2010 at the !Khwa ttu San Cultural and Educational Centre, near Yzerfontein on South Africa’s west coast about 90 km north of Cape Town.

Assuming it clears the remaining regulatory hurdles, Zembrin will be marketed later this year at “ordinary, everyday people suffering from stress.” As well as distributing the herbal extract in South Africa, HGH Pharmaceuticals has signed a marketing agreement with New Jersey-based distributor, PL Thomas & Co Inc, which specialises in marketing standardised botanical extracts and other dietary supplements in the North American market. HGH Pharmaceuticals also intends to market Zembrin in selected European countries and Australia. A future tie-up with a major pharmaceutical company is also a possibility.

The imminent launch of Zembrin is good news for designated San and Namaqualand communities in the Western and Northern Cape provinces, which will receive royalty payments from HGH Pharmaceuticals via the Biodiversity Trust Fund of the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs. Furthermore, according to Ben-Erik Van Wyk, professor of botany at the University of Johannesburg, who endorses the herb as safe and non-addictive, the introduction of the Sceletium extract to new markets, especially in the world’s advanced economies, is likely to have an additional effect.

“So often traditional remedies are looked down upon as old-fashioned and outdated,” he noted. “If this product becomes a huge success the San culture will become more respected and better-known.”

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