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MIT researchers plan for weight loss: Filling your stomach with enlargement, balls of the size of a golf ball

If only weight loss is as simple as taking a pill, right?

It is a frequent refrain, which is often exploited by those who perform suspicious dietary pills, fat supplements and quickly fit into online schemes.

Before turning your skepticism into concrete, consider this: A MIT researcher says his team developed a sophisticated pill that can reduce space in the stomach, making it easier to avoid excess calories.

Although he does not offer a money back guarantee, Xuanhe Zhao – an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT – is part of a team who developed a pill that swings the size of a golf ball after being ingested and can stay in the stomach as long as it is a month.

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The pill is still being tested in models similar to the human gastrointestinal tract, but researchers hope to commercialize the technology one day.

"The idea is, you will eat a few of these pills, they will go into the stomach and will occupy it with very soft materials to make people feel full and eat less," said Zhao. "It's simpler than surgery or putting painful rubber balloons in someone's stomach to make them eat less."

The pill extends to a large ball and then falls on the membrane, researchers say.


The pill extends to a large ball and then falls on the membrane, researchers say.

For those in need of extreme weight loss, options may seem daunting and invasive. Operations such as gastric bypass and gastric ulcer reduce the size of the stomach – reducing the number of calories the body can absorb – but they are irreversible and carry frightening risks, such as clotting and infection.

The appeal of the extension of the pill is its simplicity, said Zhao. The pill is made of two types of hydrogels – mixtures of polymers and water. Once swollen, said Zhao, the pill has a consistency similar to tofu or jelly.

To remove the stomach objects, he said, the patient will drink a calcium solution (at a concentration higher than what is in the milk) that will cut the pills to their original size, allowing them to go through the digestive system.

Zhao said weight loss is a potential application for technology, but there are others. For years, he says, researchers are trying to develop a pill that can remain in the human body for weeks or even months – a branch of research known as "ingestible electronics". The challenge, he said, is the engineering of a pill small enough to be taken orally, but firm enough to withstand the dangerous environment in the human stomach, with muscle tightening and sour juices.

"We really need a pill that can be swallowed fast enough before the stomach is empty," said Zhao, noting that the pill design is inspired by the buffer fish, which quickly absorbs in water to increase its size and make them avoid predators.

Still incredibly sound, such a pill will allow doctors to monitor the conditions inside the body, such as pH balance, viruses, bacteria, or temperature. Researchers say tablets can also be used to put small cameras in the body that can monitor tumors and ulcers over time. Sensors embedded in the pill may monitor whether the patient has taken medication according to the schedule.

Without taking medicine – or "unavailability of drugs" in the health care world – is "a common and expensive problem," according to a study cited by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

"About 30 to 50 percent of adults in the US do not adhere to long-term drugs, which leads to about $ 100 billion in annual costs that can be prevented," according to the 2013 study.

Keeping the patient from within may sound futuristic, but it's already happening.

At the University of Minnesota Clinic of Masonic Cancer, doctors incorporate petty sensors into pills that allow them to maintain patient heart rate by chemotherapy, activity level and sleep cycle. The sensor, which is the size of the sand and dissolves in the gastrointestinal tract, also tells doctors when the patient swallows drugs. Information is collected in a database that doctors can access from their devices.

"I had a patient whose hands were hurting and she could not open the pill bottle," said doctor Edward Green, noting that when the patient's daughter found herself, she would take pills, but when her daughter was gone she would not. "The application tells me in real time that I did not take the pills, and the next morning I get that message at the clinic."

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