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In an attempt to eliminate the risks associated with weight loss surgery, researchers have created a pill that mimics its effects. But how effective—or safe—is it?

Zee Krstic
June 13, 2018

Weight loss surgery has surged in popularity over the last decade. In 2016 alone, more than 216,000 people underwent some form of bariatric surgery—which involves removing or obstructing part of the stomach and intestine, to reduce a person's ability to consume or absorb foods.

But there are definite risks. In the last two years at least 12 people have died from one of the procedures, which involves placing an inflated balloon in part of the stomach. And complications from even the more traditional methods is high, with patients suffering from malnutrition, vomiting, ulcers, and more.

So a team of researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital outside of Boston are hoping to reduce that risk, while still lowering obesity rates and associated diseases such as type 2 diabetes, with a pill. If successful, they say the new product could replace gastric bypass surgery altogether.

The researchers' initial findings, which were based on experiments and tests done on lab rats, were highlighted in a new paper published in the journal Nature Materials earlier this week. The pill works to negate the effects of overeating by coating the intestine with a compound called LuCI, which then prevents the intestines or stomach from absorbing nutrients. According to initial results, the LuCI compound lowered the rats' response to glucose by 47 percent within an hour of ingesting the pill—theoretically, this means it could be used to help people with diabetes.

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The intestinal coating dissolves within a few hours, which makes it much less permanent than surgery. Dr. Ali Tavakkoli, a bariatric surgeon and co-director of Brigham's Center for Weight Management and Metabolic Surgery, told the Boston Herald that as little as one to two percent of overweight patients who qualify for a gastric bypass actually go under the knife—possibly due to the fact that these procedures are irreversible.

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

Individuals who want to undergo the procedure must have a body mass index of at least 40, which means that moderately overweight individuals are also not eligible. But the health effect of the surgery, despite any inherent risks or long-term consequences, is often heralded by those in the health industry: Gastric bypass more often than not sends Type 2 diabetes into permanent remission.

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While the LuCI-filled pill could have implications for treating obesity and related diseases in the United States, there are many hurdles to clear before the drug is available. Clinical trials with actual human subjects will need to be done, for instance.

Even if eventually cleared by the FDA, it's not certain that the pill will become an effective—or popular—solution. Other weight-loss solutions that involved decreasing a food's digestibility have not fared well. In the early 90s an additive called olestra—a fat molecule that was too big to be absorbed—was heavily marketed in chips, but failed to take off when users became aware that eat it inhibited nutrient absorption and led to abdominal cramping and other unwanted side effects.

Bottom line: It remains to be seen if this product could be a solution to obesity and diabetes, but for now, for the majority of Americans struggling with diet and nutrition, the best solution is still to choose reasonable amounts of whole food for optimum health—and choosing to cook meals in your own kitchen is one of the best ways to do that.

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