Drug from plant 'can beat obesity'

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AN ANTI-OBESITY treatment derived from a South African plant could storm the market for so-called "lifestyle drugs".

The American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which saw profits go up by 40 per cent within three months of launching Viagra, has signed a pounds 24m licensing and development deal with Phytopharm, a British research company.

The potential market for anti-obesity drugs is vast with 65 million Americans alone suffering from obesity. It has been estimated that the direct cost of obesity in the US market is $3bn a year and indirect costs - treatment for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoarthritis - are $75bn.

The appetite-reducing properties of the plant, whose identity is a closely guarded secret, were discovered last year by South African scientists. But the scientists say the drug, named P57, will not suffer the problems that other anti-obesity drugs have done because it works in a different way.

Last year one of the most widely used appetite suppressants, fenfluramine was withdrawn because it caused heart problems.

Xenical, the first approved treatment for obesity that is not an appetite suppressant, can have unpleasant side-effects such as anal leakage if too much fat is absorbed.

The trials for P57 are at a very early stage and at the moment it is impossible to say what its side-effects might be, said the researchers.

"We are in the early stages of development and we can't say there are going to be no side- effects," said Dr Richard Dixey, chief executive of Phytopharm.