Weight loss implants offer hope for treating obesity

What if you didn’t have to conjure up superhuman willpower to resist food temptations? What if you had the power to make the desire to overeat disappear?

Scientists have toiled for years with various pills and chemical formulations, striving to unlock the secret to managing the body’s appetite regulation system and fat-burning abilities. To date, that “magic pill” does not exist. In Switzerland, however, researchers have taken a new approach, attempting to devise an implant – not a pill – that will make controlling hunger and cravings as easy as flipping a switch.

The World Health Organization reports that obesity rates have soared across the globe, and more than half the total population is overweight. In the United States, the numbers are even more staggering – with nearly 65 percent of the population considered overweight or obese. The incidence of chronic diseases due to obesity, such as type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, have reached an all-time high, costing the U.S. healthcare system more than $147 billion as of 2008 estimates. Last year, chronic diseases linked to obesity joined tobacco use as one of the top causes of preventable death in America.Statistics like these make discovering a cure for obesity a top priority for global leaders.

Professor Martin Fussenegger and his team in the department of biosystems science and engineering in Basel, Switzerland have designed a weight loss implant made from human gene components that monitors the level of circulating fats in the blood and sends a “messenger substance” that alerts your brain when you are full and satisfied. At this stage in the study, the “messenger substance” being tested is the clinically-approved appetite suppressant peptide hormone, pramlintide.

Pramlintide reduces the absorption of glucose and fat by slowing gastric emptying and triggering receptors in the satiety center of the hypothalamus.

The researchers implanted the device into human cells and placed it into tiny capsules which were implanted into obese mice. The mice were fed a high fat diet and observed. The researchers discovered that the implants effectively registered the excess levels of fat in the bloodstream, triggering the release of pramlintide. In turn, the mice stopped eating and weight loss ensued. When fat levels reached normal, healthy levels, the device ceased production of the satiety signal, and the mice resumed normal eating habits.

During the study, the mice were given limitless portions of food, but despite availability of food, the mice ate less because of the consistent satiety signal being triggered by the device.
Although the results thus far are promising and have researchers enthusiastic about human application, the project is years away from being safely and effectively used in humans.

Fussenegger has hopes for initial use of the device to replace gastric bands and by-pass surgeries that have risen in popularity with the increase of obesity around the world. Implantation of the device would be minimally invasive and require no downtime.  And, unlike many remedies, it treats the source of the problem – preventing overeating before it ever starts.