Stomach Balloons: New Weapon in War on Obesity

Vittorio Campati is a 40-year-old restaurant chef. He weighs 308 pounds, likes pasta and sweets and has failed many diets.

His last resort? A balloon inserted into his stomach in a procedure that lasts less than 20 minutes. European doctors hail the technique as a simple, less invasive way to fight obesity.

"I'm having this balloon inserted in the hope of reducing the quantity of food that I eat," Campati said shortly before being sedated at Rome's Polyclinic Hospital Umberto I.

Being a chef makes that hard.

"I eat a lot of carbohydrates and I did several diets, but all of them failed," he said.

Inserted down the patient's throat, a round silicon balloon is filled with a saline solution and remains in the stomach for about six months, when it is deflated and taken out before the material degrades.

"We introduce a balloon of half a liter volume (about a pint) in the stomach and inflate it so it takes up space and helps slow down the eating," said Dr. Nicola Basso, the obesity surgeon who performed the procedure on Campati in early January. "This causes a sense of fullness, and the patient is helped to lose weight."

The balloon, which also contains methylene blue to signal any leak, does not alter the shape of the abdomen and is too big to slip down into the digestive tract.

Basso, who has performed the procedure on about 700 patients in six years, said the technique allows an average drop of 33-44 pounds over six months, although the weight loss is often temporary.

"The efficacy of the treatment depends on how the patient is able to use these six months to change his dieting habits in a more or less stable way," Basso said.

Basso hopes the procedure, which he said is less invasive than techniques like gastric bypass or stomach-stapling surgery, will catch on in the United States.

Initial trials with the balloon technique are being conducted in Louisville, Ky., although the procedure has not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, he said. Basso acknowledged the operation's long-term effects have yet to be determined.

Scott Shikora, a general and obesity surgeon at the Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston, said the results appear encouraging.

"I think it could be approved in the (United) States with probable limitations on how long it can be kept in the stomach," he said. "It looks to be safe and can be used to start weight loss for other procedures or on its own."

Patients who seek the procedure first go through eating behavior therapy and psychological screenings. Basso said they also are monitored and psychologically assisted after the operation.

"After years of failed diets, I got to the point of not being able to go on with my life, or even go out," said Maria Pia Di Liberatore, 21, who weighed 242 pounds in 2003.

Two balloons and two years later, she was down to 141 pounds.

"Life simply got better, it was a big revenge," she said in a phone interview from her hometown, Teramo.

Sabrina Spalliera, a 33-year-old in Rome who lost nearly 66 pounds, described the sensation of her balloon as "drinking a lot of water all at once."

"I felt full up after only a few bites," she said, looking fit in a tight, black suit and high-heeled boots.

Spalliera, whose weight dropped from 220 pounds, conceded that stomach cramps and nausea were part of the deal, but she is asking for another balloon while trying to lose 22 more pounds.

"Given the result and how rapidly I've achieved it, I'm really enthusiastic," she said.

Obesity affects 27 percent of men and 38 percent of women in Europe and causes illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension that are estimated to account for as much as 7 percent of the European Union's health care costs. In the United States, about 31 percent of adults -- 61 million people -- are considered obese.

Basso said about a third of balloon patients return to their initial weight after the device is removed, but another third maintain a permanent loss for years and the final third regain only some of the lost pounds.

The American Obesity Association says weight loss usually occurs soon after other obesity surgical techniques and continues for 18 months to two years. Few regain it all, averaging a loss of 60 percent after five years, the group says.

Basso said at least 1.5 million people in Italy might benefit from surgical intervention against obesity, which he stressed is not just a cosmetic issue.

"Obesity is not a minor problem. It actually reduces life expectancy by a quarter," he said.