Jacob Mullins ’05 has never struggled with his weight and he doesn’t trust the diet pill industry.
But his life revolves around hoodia gordonii, a plant thought to suppress appetite. Last summer, he spent 40 hours a week working with hoodia. And last month, he flew all the way to southern Africa to research the plant in its natural habitat.
Mullins’s fixation on hoodia gordonii is an entrepreneurial venture, not a personal attempt to slim down. It began with a television program and two college sophomores. Now, two and a half years later, the pair — Mullins and New York University senior Kedric Van de Carr — control a diet pill company that Mullins says will be “huge.”
“It’s going to be as big as Ephedrine,” Mullins said, “only it doesn’t kill people. It’s the first [diet pill] on the market where there are no side effects.”
Mullins and Van de Carr were looking for a business opportunity since attending high school together, Mullins said. Then, in mid-2002, Van de Carr was watching the news when a headline caught his eye. Pfizer Inc. was researching a new plant as a possible appetite suppressant. Because Van de Carr’s father is overweight, his curiosity was piqued. Excited, he immediately called Mullins.
The pair did more research and discovered the plant had been in use for centuries, Mullins said. When they are out hunting all day, the San Bushmen of South Africa and Botswana are traditionally not allowed to eat until they bring their kill home. To suppress their hunger, they seek out a small succulent (a cactus relative) in the bush. After eating a slice, they would be satiated for the rest of the day, Mullins said.
Curious, Mullins and Van de Carr ordered 54 of the hoodia gordonii plants to be sent to the United States. After growing them all summer, they ate one.
“If it’s going to be my business and I’m going to sell it to people, I’m going to try it,” Mullins said, shrugging. “But it tastes horrible.”
When the two had not suffered any detrimental side effects from their taste-testing, the entrepreneurs ordered hoodia powder, which is made from the dried, crushed plant. Their guinea pig was Van de Carr’s father, a doctor, who had struggled with his weight for years. In two weeks, Mullins said, Van de Carr’s father had lost about 15 pounds.
Pfizer tests showed that, when enough of the powder was taken with a meal, caloric intake decreased by 30 percent, Mullins said. Pfizer worked to pinpoint the molecule responsible for the appetite suppressant and ended up patenting the P57 molecule. But P57 alone did not achieve the same results as the entire plant. It seems as though the entire plant is necessary for appetite suppression, Mullins said. And, luckily for Mullins and Van de Carr, you cannot patent a plant. Pfizer backed out of the project.
The plant is thought to work, Mullins said, by tricking the part of the brain that regulates glucose and blood sugar. When the stomach has some food in it and the powder is taken, a chemical brain process occurs that makes the person think they are full.
The study of how the brain processes hunger is still being researched, said Gary Rudnick, a professor of pharmacology at Yale.
“There’s been progress in identifying molecules that are utilized in the brain for sensing when someone is full,” Rudnick said. “If there are molecules that do that, there are probably receptors for them.”
It’s possible, he said, that those receptors could be found in plants and utilized to make people feel satiated.
By taking hoodia powder in capsule form, the same effect is achieved as by eating a piece of the raw plant. The capsules, considered “dietary supplements,” are sold under Mullins and Van de Carr’s company, Hoodia Products LLC.
Hoodia Products LLC is not the first company to market hoodia. But Mullins said it is the first company to market the correct type of hoodia in large enough quantities to make a difference. Out of 18 types of hoodia, only the gordonii strain is known to suppress appetite. Mullins said most other companies either do not use the correct strain or do not put enough gordonii in their capsules, and added that it takes at least 1,200 milligrams per day to make a difference. While most other companies have less than 200 milligrams in their capsules, Hoodia Products LLC has 400 in each pill.
Mullins said the hoodia supply is posing the most substantial problem right now. Because it has not been marketed until recently, it was only found in the wild. Mullins and Van de Carr also found that the plan resists thriving in environments other than its native southern Africa, and with recent buzz about it, the weight-conscious have been harvesting it from the wild.
On his trip to Africa last month, Mullins said, he and Van de Carr met with a number of local farmers to figure out how to set up hoodia plantations. They signed a contract to buy hoodia gordonii from a man who currently exports 90 percent of all the gordonii leaving southern Africa.
“We don’t want to steal from anyone,” Mullins said. “We’re not cutting down wild hoodia, we’re growing our own.”
Hoodia Products LLC also is working with the Indian Land Rights Fund, donating some of the profit back to the region, Mullins said. The two partners are trying to decide between giving the money to education or hunger-solving initiatives. After all, Mullins said, they would not know about the plant’s uses were it not for the locals themselves.
Developing new pharmaceutical compounds based on indigenous use has happened in the past, Rudnick said.
“Some really mainstream drugs, like digitalis, were folk remedies,” he said. “People were taking the foxglove plant, and then a guy decided to test it as a medication.”
Digitalis is a drug often used to treat congestive heart failure and certain arrhythmias.
Still, Rudnick said, one must be cautious in testing and marketing new pills. Mullins said hoodia gordonii has no known side effects. But that may be because the product has not yet reached a wide enough market, Rudnick said.
“Nothing has side effects until it’s been in use for any length of time — that’s the problem,” he said.
But Mullins said the plant has been used in southern Africa and for so long that potential side effects do not seem to be a problem. It’s traditional south African knowledge, Mullins said, even if it is only starting to reach the West. Most people, though, are wary of any sort of diet pill, he said.
Andrew Epstein, assistant professor of epidemiology and public health, is one example. The medical community is suspicious of diet pills, he said.
“The response you get in general is most of them exist to take advantage of people who think they need to lose weight,” he said.
When Mullins returned after summer break for his senior year, people asked him what he did this summer. When he said he was working on his diet pill company, he said they looked at him a little strangely. Mullins could not blame them, he said.
“I never would have thought I’d be selling diet pills to people,” he said. “Nobody trusts diet pill companies.”
But hoodia gordonii is different, he said, having proven itself in scientific tests and among traditional cultures. So different, in fact, that now, while his friends are stressing about job interviews and internships, he is relying on his own business. Running his own company based on a plant grown in southern Africa may be stressful, he said, but ultimately, it is what he loves.
“Everyone else will be stuck in a Wall Street office,” he said. “I’m traveling, experiencing, learning, making money for myself.”