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[CAPE TOWN] After months of intense negotiation, a deal has been reached between a group of Southern African hunter-gatherers and South Africa's leading research organisation to share any financial benefits from a chemical produced by a local cactus that is likely to yield a profitable anti-obesity drug.

Exactly how the royalties will be split will not be made public until the paperwork is complete. But it is expected that any monies flowing to the San community will be shared equally amongst all the San communities living in Southern Africa, and that the San in each country will establish an audited trust.

Some of the funds are also likely to be used to provide scholarships for the San to study abroad. And the government is hoping that the agreement will be widely seen as a ‘model’ for other countries facing similar issues to emulate.

The South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) made international headlines two years ago when it emerged that its scientists had isolated and patented the active ingredient in the hoodia plant, which the San people have used for centuries to stave off hunger and thirst during hunting expeditions.

The CSIR sold the development rights to the active ingredient ‘P57’ to a UK-based company, Phytopharm, which in turn sold the rights to the world's biggest pharmaceutical company, Pfizer. At the time, the CSIR's dealings with the international pharmaceutical industry raised concern about how, if at all, the San community would benefit.

Relations between the two sides became strained, but in March they signed a 'memorandum of understanding', agreeing to negotiate how the benefits of commercialisation of the drug could be shared (see Bushmen to share gains from slimming cactus ).

However agreement has finally been reached. According to CSIR's lead negotiator, Petro Terblanche, the San and the CSIR reached a verbal agreement in December. "[The deal] still needs to be formally signed, but we are all very happy with it," she says.

The US obesity drug market alone is worth US$3 billion annually, and if P57 passes clinical trials, it could very well become a blockbuster drug, generating millions of dollars. Preliminary studies show the drug reduces calorific intake in obese men by 30 per cent. However, getting the drug to market is likely to take several years.

Terblanche said it was still too early to determine whether the hoodia would be farmed locally to support the demand for P57, or whether P57 would be produced synthetically.

Rob Adam, South Africa's Director General for Science and Technology, says that determining a fair distribution of the benefits arising from the commercialisation of indigenous knowledge is an issue that most developing countries are grappling with, and none have yet figured out how to do it.

South Africa is developing legislation to guide scientists, businesses, and indigenous communities in these matters, says Adam. Two bills are expected to go before parliament later this year, one on indigenous knowledge and another on biodiversity.

Adam is cautiously optimistic about the CSIR-San deal, saying he hopes that once the royalty split is made public, the deal will be seen as a model of engagement between a high-level research institution and an indigenous community.

Tamar Kahn is the Science Correspondent for Business Day.