February 10, 2006

Cocoa-Derived Medicines Still Years Away: Experts

By Christopher Doering

WASHINGTON -- Medications derived from a component of cocoa are still several years away despite studies suggesting it could help prevent cancer and cardiovascular diseases in humans, food and industry experts said on Thursday.

The compounds, known as flavonoids, are found in chocolate and a host of other products including vegetables, green tea and red wine.

A growing body of research has shown that flavonoids can help blood vessels work more efficiently, raising the possibility of treatments for a host of diseases such as high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes.

But while pharmaceutical giants are beginning to notice the findings, the speculative nature of the research has left many companies reluctant to invest millions of dollars in the technology, according to experts attending a cocoa conference in Washington.

"They have not yet made a commitment," said Dr. Norm Hollenberg, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, which has collaborated with Mars Inc., maker of M&M's and 3 Musketeers candy, on cocoa research.

"At the moment (drug companies are) spending so much money" on other research that will more immediately benefit them and their shareholders, Hollenberg said.

For some time, raw cocoa has been widely recognized as a source of flavonoids, and in particular a class of flavonoids known as flavanols.

Privately held Mars has invested more than $10 million in studies to develop hundreds of compounds that copy the properties of cocoa flavanols.

"The soonest that a pharmaceutical can be available from cocoa flavanol chemistry knowledge I think would be seven to 10 years," Mars Chief Science Officer Harold Schmitz told Reuters.

In order to bring a product to market, Schmitz said Mars is in talks with several large pharmaceutical companies to help share the cost of developing a drug, which can be several hundred million dollars.

He declined to say when Mars would find a partner or with whom it was talking.

"When is the right time to enter into a partnership with the right partner to make sure the technology doesn't get stuck on the shelf?" said Schmitz. "We're certainly not in any rush to do it."

Americans eat more than 3.1 billion pounds of chocolate annually, or about 11.7 pounds per person, according to Mintel International Group, a London-based research and marketing firm.

Most of the demand is in the popular milk chocolate variety, but consumers' interest in dark chocolate has surged in recent years after research has shed light on the potential health benefits.

A study recently released by Hollenberg found that Kuna Indians living on a chain of islands near Panama consumed large quantities of flavanol-rich cocoa every day. The Kuna were less likely to die of heart disease and cancer than those living on the Panama mainland.

Still, doctors and scientists have not made recommendations on cocoa consumption to their patients based on findings from Hollenberg and others. Nutritionists have urged consumers to limit their intake of chocolate, which is high in fat, sugar and calories.