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Balloon You Can Swallow Fights Obesity

A new type of stomach-filling balloon can help people drop pounds, and it doesn't require any surgery to place it, researchers reported Thursday.

Patients can just swallow the deflated balloon, and doctors can use a narrow catheter to fill it with water. The balloon makes it harder to overeat.

A study presented at the Obesity Week meeting in Los Angeles shows the "balloon pill" works at least as well as other stomach balloons to help people lose weight.

"It's a swallowable balloon, much like a large pill. People will swallow it (and) it will reside in the stomach," said Dr. John Morton, chief of bariatric surgery at Stanford University and president of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.

"It then gets inflated with a very thin catheter. Roughly about half a liter of fluid goes into that balloon," Morton, who was not involved with the study, told NBC News.

"It's a swallowable balloon, much like a large pill."

After four months, 34 patients trying out the balloon lost an average of 22 pounds, or 37 percent of their excess weight. Their cholesterol and blood sugar levels also improved - something that usually happens when people lose even a little weight.

As with other gastric balloons, the most common adverse events reported were nausea and vomiting.

"What makes the Elipse different is the fact that it is a procedure that doesn't require sedation or surgery," Morton said.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved two other gastric balloons this year: one called Orbera and one called ReShape. They are meant for people who are medically obese - meaning their body mass index (BMI) is 30 or more - who have been unable to lose weight through diet and exercise.

But both those devices must be inserted using an endoscope - a fairly uncomfortable procedure that usually requires sedation. And they must be removed the same way.

There's also a pacemaker-like device that controls appetite with pulses but which also requires surgery.

"The unique aspect about this Elipse balloon is that it also has the ability to dissolve and be passed out on its own without any further intervention," Morton said.

It will be several years before the new balloon has been through enough testing to get approval by the FDA. But obesity experts like Morton are happy that there are so many new options for obese Americans.

"It's also a new tool to help us deal with obesity, which is our biggest public health problem and we need all hands on deck -- all different types of devices and innovations that are available to us," he said.

"The cost will range anywhere from probably $6,000 to $12,000, depending on your part of the country."

More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese and the problem is getting worse. Obesity raises the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and other conditions.

Obesity drugs have not been greatly successful in helping people lose weight, although several are now on the market. Several more were removed from the shelves years ago after they were found to cause problems such as stroke.

Diets have been shown to be equally bad at helping people keep off the pounds for long periods of time. But surgical procedures to shrink the stomach have been very successful. One study showed the surgery helped people to lose enough weight to reverse their type-2 diabetes.

The balloons were designed as a way to get the same effect - decreasing how much food the stomach can hold - without the invasive surgery.

Right now, none of the balloons are covered by most insurance plans, Morton noted.

"The cost will range anywhere from probably $6,000 to $12,000, depending on your part of the country," he said. "It's something that is generally out of pocket but there are other means of paying for it like health saving account. And obviously, getting some sort of treatment has got its own benefit, to be sure."

But the good news is that there are now many different possibilities for people struggling with their weight.

"And I would highly encourage anyone who's got a BMI over 30 to seek help and see what's available for you, because there are options and there is hope," Morton said.