Researchers develop pill alternative to weight loss surgery

Researchers develop pill alternative to weight loss surgery

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital are developing a surgery in a pill that has the potential to replace invasive weight loss procedures, they say.

“Bariatric surgery has been utilized increasingly over the last 15 to 20 years for weight management,” said Dr. Ali Tavakkoli, bariatric surgeon and co-director of the Brigham’s Center for Weight Management and Metabolic Surgery. “But there are risks to this surgery, and this pill would alleviate those risks.”

The pill — which has been tested on rats — would be taken before meals to coat the intestines, allowing food to pass through without being fully absorbed into the body, according to a paper published yesterday in the journal Nature Materials.

The coating would then dissolve in a matter of hours.

This would be a boon for those struggling with obesity and diabetes, Tavakkoli said, and would provide an alternative to surgical procedures that can have lifelong consequences, like chronic vitamin deficiencies.

He added that only 1 to 2 percent of patients who qualify for the surgery actually follow through.

“I think some of it may be insurance barriers and access to care,” Tavakkoli said. “A large part is patients are worried about having a surgery that appears to be complex and leads to permanent change.”

Bariatric surgery involves reducing the stomach from the size of a football to about the size of an egg, and bringing up the lower part of the intestine to the stomach — preventing a certain portion of the intestine from absorbing nutrients.

Not everyone qualifies for surgery, either. It requires a body mass index of at least 40 — meaning someone who is 5-foot-4 would need to weight at least 240 pounds.

The health implications of obesity include Type 2 diabetes, which costs the United States $174 billion annually to treat, said Jeff Karp, professor of medicine at the Brigham and one of the project’s lead researchers.

“Gastric bypass procedure had this remarkable effect of sending Type 2 diabetes into remission,” Karp said. “There’s an urgent need to develop a safer alternative.”

The pill may have a quick path to widespread use, unlike many new treatments in the trial stages.

Researchers used a form of sucralfate, a material that has been FDA-approved for decades.

“We could be testing in humans within one to two years,” Karp said. “Within the next three to five years, this could be available.”

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