If only weight loss was as simple as taking a pill, right?
This is a common refrain, which is often used by those who sell shadow pills for weight loss, burn fat and quickly prepare themselves on the Internet.
Before your skepticism turns into concrete, think about it: a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says his team has developed a complex pill that can reduce the space inside your stomach, making it easier to avoid excess calories.
Although he does not offer a money back guarantee, Xuanhe Zhao – Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – is part of a team that developed a pill that swells to the size of a golf ball after ingestion and can remain inside the stomach for a month.
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The tablets are still being tested on models resembling the human gastrointestinal tract, but researchers hope to commercialize the technology one day.
“The idea is that you would eat several such pills; they would swell in the stomach and fill it with very soft materials so that people feel full and eat less, ”said Zhao. "It's easier than surgery or the introduction of painful rubber bottles in someone's stomach, to force yourself to eat less."
For those who are in dire need of extreme weight loss, options may seem frightening and aggressive. Surgeries such as gastric bypass and sleeve gastrectomy reduce the size of the stomach – reducing the number of calories the body can absorb – but are irreversible and carry frightening risks such as clots and infections.
Zhao said that the appeal of an expanding pill is its simplicity. The tablet is made of two types of hydrogels – a mixture of polymers and water. Zhao said that after swelling the tablets have a consistency similar to tofu or jelly.
According to him, in order to remove objects from the stomach, the patient must drink a solution of calcium (in a concentration higher than in milk), which will reduce the tablets to their original size, allowing them to pass through the digestive system.
Zhao said that weight loss is one of the potential applications for technology, but there are others. For many years, he said, the researchers tried to develop a pill that could stay in the human body for several weeks or even months — a line of research known as “swallowed electronics.” The task, he said, is to develop a pill small enough to be taken orally, but tough enough to withstand the dangerous environment inside the human stomach with its muscle contraction and acidic juices.
“We really needed the tablet to swell quickly enough before the stomach was empty,” Zhao said, noting that the design of the tablet was inspired by a down fish that quickly absorbs water to inflate its size and avoid predators.
No matter how incredible it may sound, such a pill would allow doctors to monitor such states of the body as Ph balance, viruses, bacteria, or temperature. Researchers say pills can also be used to put tiny cameras in the body that could control tumors and ulcers for a long time. Sensors embedded in the pill could monitor whether the patient took the medication on a schedule.
According to a study cited by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, refusal to take drugs – or "inadequate treatment" in the health world – is a "common and expensive problem."
“Approximately 30 to 50 percent of the US adult population does not adhere to long-term medications, which leads to annual costs that can be prevented by $ 100 billion,” the 2013 study says.
Monitoring the patient from the inside may seem futuristic, but it is already happening.
At the University of Minnesota's Masonic Cancer Clinic, doctors build tiny sensors into tablets that allow them to monitor their heart rate, activity level and sleep cycle in patients undergoing chemotherapy. The sensor, the size of a grain of sand and dissolving in the gastrointestinal tract, also tells the doctor when the patient has taken the medicine. Information is collected in a database that doctors can access from their devices.
“I had one patient who had pain in her hands, and she could not open the bottle of pills,” said doctor Edward Greeno, noting that when the patient’s daughter is around, she will take her pills, but when her daughter leaves she won't, “The real-time application tells me that she didn't take the pills, and I get this message at the clinic the next morning.”