The pill - invented at MIT in Boston - stimulates the inner walls of the stomach as if food were present (even though the stomach is actually empty). This sets off a hormonal chain reaction that makes us feel full. It has been tested on pigs so far, but testing in humans is also being considered.
A multidisciplinary team at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston has developed a device that can significantly increase the feeling of fullness without the need for drugs, therefore helping people not to overeat. What’s more, this tiny device, called the Vibrating Ingestible BioElectronic Stimulator (VIBES), has a low production cost. According to early estimates, if the pill is manufactured on an industrial scale in the future, it will be affordable for everyone, unlike next-generation drugs — such as the antidiabetic semaglutide, also used for weight loss — which cost on average around one to two thousand dollars per month. The findings of the trial have been published in the journal Science Advances.
How the weight-loss pill works
The bioengineers at MIT based their research on a different concept from the one with which drugs are ‘devised’: they decided to take advantage of the physical process that occurs when we eat. When food reaches the stomach, one of the most powerful responses is the distension of the stomach walls. This activates receptors — called mechanoreceptors — that can ‘sense’ the increase in volume. When these receptors are ‘switched on’, this results in the increased secretion of various hormones associated with feeling full, including GLP-1 (which is also the target for antidiabetic drugs), and two molecules (peptides), called C-peptide and PYY.
Meanwhile, when the stomach walls become distended, this causes a decrease in appetite-stimulating substances, such as ghrelin. This gave the researchers the idea of tricking the stomach, by mimicking the arrival of food through simple mechanical stimulation (even though there isn’t actually any food there), thus causing the inner walls to send signals to the brain to tell the body to stop eating.
A helping hand to reduce the feeling of hunger
The researchers have put this technique into practice by creating a gelatin-coated capsule powered by a tiny silver oxide battery. The capsule is as long as a multivitamin tablet (around three centimetres), and just under one centimetre wide. Once ingested, the gelatin dissolves in the stomach, activating an electronic circuit that makes the pill vibrate. This stimulates the mechanoreceptors, inducing a feeling of fullness as a result.
The current version of the capsule vibrates for about half an hour, and should be taken around 20 minutes before meals to give it time to be activated. It is excreted from the body within four to five days. No side effects, such as obstructions, perforations or other unexpected problems occurred during the animal testing, and the pill therefore proved to be safe.
Lose weight by reducing food by up to 40%
As for the positive effects, the pigs it was tested on (over a total of 108 meals) ate 40% less food than usual, gaining less weight than the animals that had been fed as normal. This confirms that they felt less hungry. Experiments are currently ongoing, with the hope of testing in humans in the near future.
In the meantime, the researchers are attempting to create mechanical ‘pills’ that will last longer, with a system allowing them to be turned on and off as needed, activated from outside the body.
As already mentioned, the objective is to succeed in developing easy-to-use devices to suit every pocket. If this is achieved, many people probably won’t have to take substances such as those that act on GLP-1, or will indeed avoid having weight-loss surgery (which is not without risks and contraindications), instead opting for a pill that’s not only inexpensive but also drug free.