Researchers at the Harvard Medical School have developed an oral treatment that delivers the same weight-loss benefits associated with invasive procedures such as gastric band or bypass surgery.

Illustration of the new pill developed at BWH that mimics the effects of gastric bypass surgery. Credit: Brigham and Women's Hospital and Randal Mckenzie.

Illustration of the new pill developed at BWH that mimics the effects of gastric bypass surgery. Credit: Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Randal Mckenzie.

The pill is essentially a gut-coating medication that prevents sugars and other nutrients in food from being absorbed by the intestines. Taken before each meal, this treatment ought to offer the same benefits of bariatric weight-loss surgery with lower risk and at a lower cost. In a couple of hours, the effects of the pill dissipate.

When coupled with exercise and a healthy diet, weight loss surgery has been found effective in dramatically reducing a patient’s excess body fat.

Gastric band surgery involves inserting a band that reduces the stomach’s size, meaning you will feel full after eating a reduced amount of food. Recent research in the United States found that people with gastric bands lose around half of their excess body weight. Meanwhile, gastric bypasses reduce this excess body weight by two-thirds post-op. The surgery involves re-routing the digestive system past the stomach, so you digest less food and it takes less to make you feel full.

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Besides weight loss, gastric bypass — one of the best-studied surgeries in the world — can also lead to other beneficial health outcomes, including positive effects for blood pressure, sleep apnea, and certain forms of cancer. The surgery is also remarkably effective at curing type 2 diabetes.

Having a pill that mimics the effects of this kind of surgery without all the hassle involved with a gastric bypass would be immensely valuable to patients and healthcare providers.

“We envision a pill that a patient can take before a meal that transiently coats the gut to replicate the effects of surgery,” said co-senior author Jeff Karp, PhD, a bioengineer and principal investigator at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). “Over the last several years, we’ve been working with our surgical colleagues on this idea and have developed a material that meets an important clinical need.”

According to the researchers at BWH at Harvard, the transient coating has so far only been tested on rats. Experiments showed that the rodents’ blood sugar levels were 47 percent lower than in rats without the treatment. This shows that calories weren’t taken up although the rats ate the same diets.

“What we’ve developed here is essentially, ‘surgery in a pill,'” said co-lead author Yuhan Lee, PhD, a materials scientist in the BWH Division of Engineering in Medicine. “We’ve used a bioengineering approach to formulate a pill that has good adhesion properties and can attach nicely to the gut in a preclinical model. And after a couple of hours, its effects dissipate.”

The pill’s main component is sucralfate, a substance that is already approved as safe for human consumption in treating ulcers of the stomach and intestine. Since the main active ingredient is already FDA-approved, the enrolling process for a clinical trial should run more smoothly, although it’s not clear at this point if the pill is safe for human consumption or — if it is safe — how long before it might become available.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Materials.