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Swallowing a vibrating capsule may revolutionize obesity treatment

MIT engineers have developed a fascinating new technology to combat obesity — an ingestible capsule that vibrates in the stomach. These vibrations trigger stretch receptors that simulate a sense of fullness.

When you eat a large meal, your stomach signals your brain to create a feeling of fullness, indicating it’s time to stop eating. Drinking a glass of water before eating can produce similar messages, a common suggestion for dieters. MIT’s vibrating capsule exploits this phenomenon.

In animal tests, administering this pill 20 minutes before eating not only prompted satiety hormones but also cut food consumption by about 40 percent.

While much remains to be understood about body weight control in humans, this technology, if proven safe for human use, could provide a non-invasive obesity treatment, the researchers suggest.

Science behind satiety and hunger

Shriya Srinivasan PhD ’20, now an assistant professor of bioengineering at Harvard University, suggests that individuals looking to control their appetite or lose weight could use this pill before meals.

“For somebody who wants to lose weight or control their appetite, it could be taken before each meal,” says Srinivasan. “This could be really interesting in that it would provide an option that could minimize the side effects that we see with the other pharmacological treatments out there.” 

Srinivasan, the lead author of this study, collaborated with Giovanni Traverso, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Their findings are published today in Science Advances.

Our stomachs play a crucial role in regulating hunger and fullness. When stretched, specialized cells called mechanoreceptors detect this expansion and signal the brain through the vagus nerve.

This leads to the production of insulin and hormones like C-peptide, Pyy, and GLP-1, which aid in digestion, induce fullness, and curb eating. Concurrently, ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger, decreases.

Fighting obesity with a vibrating capsule

While at MIT, Shriya Srinivasan delved into the potential of artificially stimulating these mechanoreceptors to control hunger. Her curiosity stemmed from previous studies indicating that vibrating muscles can create an illusion of more substantial stretching.

“I wondered if we could activate stretch receptors in the stomach by vibrating them and having them perceive that the entire stomach has been expanded, to create an illusory sense of distension that could modulate hormones and eating patterns,” Srinivasan explains.

During her postdoc at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, Srinivasan joined forces with Giovanni Traverso’s lab, renowned for pioneering drug delivery and electronic devices. Their collaboration birthed a capsule, roughly the size of a multivitamin, equipped with a vibrating element.

Powered by a small silver oxide battery, it springs to action in the stomach when a gelatinous membrane dissolves in gastric fluids, completing an electronic circuit.

Impressive results from animal studies

The team’s animal studies revealed significant findings. The vibrating capsule activated mechanoreceptors, mimicking the hormonal response of a meal, even during fasting.

More strikingly, when activated for about 20 minutes before feeding, the animals ate 40% less than without the capsule, also gaining weight more slowly.

“The behavioral change is profound, and that’s using the endogenous system rather than any exogenous therapeutic. We have the potential to overcome some of the challenges and costs associated with delivery of biologic drugs by modulating the enteric nervous system,” Traverso says. 

Currently designed to vibrate for 30 minutes in the stomach, future adaptations may extend this duration, offering wireless control. The animal studies confirmed the pill’s safe passage through the digestive system within four or five days, without adverse effects like obstruction or perforation.

Vibrating capsule clinical trials are next

This innovation could revolutionize obesity treatment. Traditional methods, such as diet and exercise, aren’t universally effective, and existing medical interventions are often invasive or costly. By contrast, the MIT capsule could be manufactured affordably, making it accessible to broader populations.

“For a lot of populations, some of the more effective therapies for obesity are very costly. At scale, our device could be manufactured at a pretty cost-effective price point,” Srinivasan highlights.

“I’d love to see how this would transform care and therapy for people in global health settings who may not have access to some of the more sophisticated or expensive options that are available today.”

The team’s focus now shifts to scaling up manufacturing for human clinical trials. These studies are crucial for assessing safety and optimizing usage parameters, such as timing and frequency relative to meals.

In summary, the MIT capsule represents a novel, non-invasive approach to managing obesity, offering hope for more accessible and effective treatments in the future.

The full study was published in the journal Science Advances.


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