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Can Swallowing a Vibrating Pill Help Keep Hunger at Bay?

Our modern understanding of obesity and metabolic disorders recognises that maintaining a healthy body is a bit more complicated than diet and exercise. This new approach is leading to some buzzy solutions. MIT researchers are making waves with an innovative edible device designed to trick your stomach into feeling full. By targeting stomach receptors to induce feelings of fullness, the device presents a novel method for weight management. While further research and human trials are needed, early results from animal studies are promising. If proven safe for human use, this technology can provide a valuable option for obesity treatment.

The Obesity Epidemic: Understanding its Significance

In recent decades, the world has witnessed a dramatic rise in obesity rates, marking the emergence of a global epidemic that transcends geographical boundaries, socioeconomic status, and age groups.1 Obesity, characterized by excessive body fat detrimental to one’s health, often results from an imbalance where more energy is consumed than expended.2 In June 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) finally classified obesity as a disease rather than a simple lifestyle choice because of its substantial impact on individual well-being and its strain on healthcare systems worldwide.3

Since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been a remarkable increase in obesity rates, exacerbated by reduced physical activity because of the shift towards an online-focused lifestyle. This has also led to a surge in obesity-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.4

A 2019 study conducted in Wuhan, China examined the clinical characteristics of cardiovascular disease patients infected with COVID-19. They showed that up to 88% of COVID-19 nonsurvivors were either overweight or obese, highlighting how obesity might worsen clinical outcomes for various conditions.5 This has added to the urgent call for comprehensive obesity treatments.

Controlling Appetite and the Future of Obesity Treatment

Have you ever wondered what governs our feeling of hunger? Why we feel full as we eat? The answer to these questions all comes down to one thing, and it begins in the stomach. Embedded within the stomach are stretch receptors, which play a vital role in communicating feelings of fullness and satiety. As we consume food, the physical stretching of the stomach triggers these receptors, signaling the brain, telling the body that we are full.6

Scientists from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed an innovative oral pill (called VIBES), which can decrease food intake by sticking to the stomach wall and stimulating stretch receptors through vibrations, causing a sensation of fullness.7 

In their study conducted on pigs, the animals were given the VIBES pill 20-30 minutes before a meal. Once ingested, a vibrating spring released into the stomach, stimulating the stretch receptors to promote the feeling of fullness. The vibration persisted for an average 38.3 minutes before the pill completed its journey through the digestive system.

The results were remarkable! Taking VIBES caused a reduction in food consumption by 40% and minimized weight gain, when compared to the animals that didn’t take it. Interestingly, the researchers did not observe any negative effects or digestive tract obstructions. The safety profile of this technology appears promising, however human trials are still pending. 

Other Strategies for Obesity Treatment and Management

Current obesity treatments can be categorized into three major groups: lifestyle changes, medications, and surgery.8 Lifestyle changes typically involve regulating food intake and increasing physical activity; this is the first approach to treatment. However, this plan often falters due to the challenges of sticking to strict dietary and exercise regimens outside of one’s usual habits.9 Research also tells us that genetics plays a significant part in the cause of obesity, thus limiting how effective lifestyle changes can be for certain patients.10

When lifestyle changes fall short, patients are often prescribed medications, with one popular option being Ozempic (semaglutide). Semaglutide works by mimicking what the GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide 1) hormone does in the body. It triggers insulin release and inhibits glucagon, which causes the cells to take up glucose.11 Although it was initially designed to manage diabetes, it can also help with feelings of fullness, making it a good rapid weight loss option.12 Despite its recent popularity and endorsement by celebrities, lawsuits have arisen regarding its potentially dangerous side effects such as gallbladder disease and gastroparesis.13 Some patients also experience weight rebound after Ozempic treatment.

Finally, bariatric surgery serves as the gold standard treatment for obesity.14 It encompasses various procedures intended to reduce stomach size or alter the digestive tract to compel patients to eat less.15 Such surgeries often lead to significant and sustained weight loss, improvement in obesity-related health conditions, and improved quality of life for many patients.16 However, it carries risks such as infection, bleeding, and nutritional deficiencies. Other difficulties can include extensive pre and post-surgery lifestyle changes, namely taking lifelong supplements.17

Albeit current obesity treatments do not provide universal solutions, the invention of VIBES provides great promise and hope for alternate solutions.

References

  1. Sørensen TIA, Martinez AR, Jørgensen TSH. Epidemiology of Obesity. Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2022;274:3-27. doi:10.1007/164_2022_581
  2. WHO. Obesity and overweight. World Health Organization. March 1, 2024. Accessed March 29, 2024. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight#:~:text=Overweight%20is%20a%20condition%20of,the%20risk%20of%20certain%20cancers. 
  3. Rosen H. Is Obesity A Disease or A Behavior Abnormality? Did the AMA Get It Right?. Mo Med. 2014;111(2):104-108.
  4. Nour TY, Altintaş KH. Effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on obesity and it is risk factors: a systematic review. BMC Public Health. 2023;23(1):1018. Published 2023 May 30. doi:10.1186/s12889-023-15833-2
  5. Peng YD, Meng K, Guan HQ, et al. Zhonghua Xin Xue Guan Bing Za Zhi. 2020;48(6):450-455. doi:10.3760/cma.j.cn112148-20200220-00105
  6. Tack J, Verbeure W, Mori H, et al. The gastrointestinal tract in hunger and satiety signalling. United European Gastroenterol J. 2021;9(6):727-734. doi:10.1002/ueg2.12097
  7. Srinivasan SS, Alshareef A, Hwang A, et al. A vibrating ingestible bioelectronic stimulator modulates gastric stretch receptors for illusory satiety. Sci Adv. 2023;9(51):eadj3003. doi:10.1126/sciadv.adj3003
  8. Wiechert M, Holzapfel C. Nutrition Concepts for the Treatment of Obesity in Adults. Nutrients. 2021;14(1):169. Published 2021 Dec 30. doi:10.3390/nu14010169
  9. James J, Thomas P, Kerr D. Preventing childhood obesity: two year follow-up results from the Christchurch obesity prevention programme in schools (CHOPPS). BMJ. 2007;335(7623):762. doi:10.1136/bmj.39342.571806.55
  10. Mahmoud R, Kimonis V, Butler MG. Genetics of Obesity in Humans: A Clinical Review. Int J Mol Sci. 2022;23(19):11005. Published 2022 Sep 20. doi:10.3390/ijms231911005
  11. Mahapatra MK, Karuppasamy M, Sahoo BM. Semaglutide, a glucagon like peptide-1 receptor agonist with cardiovascular benefits for management of type 2 diabetes. Rev Endocr Metab Disord. 2022;23(3):521-539. doi:10.1007/s11154-021-09699-1
  12. Wilding JPH, Batterham RL, Calanna S, et al. Once-Weekly Semaglutide in Adults with Overweight or Obesity. N Engl J Med. 2021;384(11):989-1002. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa2032183
  13. Edwards S. Ozempic lawsuit: What you need to know (march update). Forbes. February 6, 2024. Accessed March 11, 2024. https://www.forbes.com/advisor/legal/product-liability/ozempic-lawsuit/. 
  14. Alamuddin N, Bakizada Z, Wadden TA. Management of Obesity. J Clin Oncol. 2016;34(35):4295-4305. doi:10.1200/JCO.2016.66.8806
  15. Rogers AM. Current State of Bariatric Surgery: Procedures, Data, and Patient Management. Tech Vasc Interv Radiol. 2020;23(1):100654. doi:10.1016/j.tvir.2020.100654
  16. De Luca M, Zese M, Silverii GA, et al. Bariatric Surgery for Patients with Overweight/Obesity. A Comprehensive Grading Methodology and Network Metanalysis of Randomized Controlled Trials on Weight Loss Outcomes and Adverse Events. Obes Surg. 2023;33(12):4147-4158. doi:10.1007/s11695-023-06909-4
  17. Madura JA 2nd, Dibaise JK. Quick fix or long-term cure? Pros and cons of bariatric surgery. F1000 Med Rep. 2012;4:19. doi:10.3410/M4-19
Ivan Cheng BSc
Ivan Cheng BSc
Ivan is a researcher and medical writer with expertise in medical science, specializing in metabolic and pregnancy research. He holds a degree in Honours Bachelor of Science for Human Biology from the University of Toronto (UofT). Currently, as a UofT research graduate student at Mount Sinai Hospital, renowned for its expertise in women's and infants' health, Ivan is committed to advancing healthcare knowledge in fetal-maternal medicine through his pioneering research in gestational diabetes. In recognition of his outstanding contributions to the field, Ivan also presented different local/international scientific conferences and received prestigious awards, earning accolades for his innovative work.
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