A plant used to allay hunger pangs by generations of Kalahari tribesmen in southern Africa could be the latest blockbuster slimming aid, according to an announcement Monday by Unilever's Slimfast unit.

Prototype drinks and food bars containing the Hoodia gordonii plant extract, are now undergoing clinical trials as the £21 million ($35.6m; €30.23m) research and development programme moves into its second phase.

Over the next eighteen months the new product in all its forms will be subjected to consumer trials before marketing approvals are sought.

Early research by Unilever's UK-based biotech partner Phytopharm found that the extract suppressed hunger so effectively that triallists cut their food consumption by as much as 1,000 calories a day. With Western world obesity nearing epidemic proportions, the potential of the product is huge.

Unilever's weight-control business has taken a hammering in recent years, largely due to the Atkins high-carbohydrate regime and other dietary fashions.

The scent of myriad £50 notes wafting Phytopharm-wards is music to the nostrils of ceo Dr Richard Dixey: "Our partnership with Unilever provides a fully funded programme and we look forward to generating royalty income from our partner's globally recognised brands."

The product could be launched by 2008, according to a Unilever spokesman: "Potentially, it's very exciting. It may not work or may not be attractive to produce but all the indications at the moment are that it's a good bet."

Data sourced from MediaGuardian.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff