Injection of Tiny Beads Could Curb Hunger, Promote Weight Loss

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A small injection could lead to decreased feelings of hunger as well as major weight loss, a small new study finds.

The procedure, known as bariatric arterial embolization, has only been tested in seven patients, and much more research will be needed in order to confirm its safety and effectiveness.

However, the doctors who completed the study are "excited about the possibility of adding [the procedure] as another tool for health care providers to offer patients in the effort to curb" the obesity epidemic, said Dr. Clifford Weiss, the director of interventional radiology research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the leader of the study, in a statement. [The Science of Hunger: How to Control It and Fight Cravings]

The procedure involves injecting microscopic beads into the blood through a tiny nick in the wrist or groin. These beads travel to a part of the stomach called the fundus, where they decrease the amount of blood flow to the area. (The fundus is located toward the top of the stomach, near the part where the esophagus adjoins it.)

Scientists suspect that the fundus may play an important role in weight loss because it produces most of the body's ghrelin, also known as the hunger hormone. By decreasing blood flow to the fundus, the procedure may limit the amount of ghrelin that the fundus secretes, which could minimize hunger and help patients lose weight, the researchers hypothesized.

Compared to weight loss surgery (also called bariatric surgery), "bariatric arterial embolization is significantly less invasive and has a much shorter recovery time," Weiss said.

Six women and one man were included in the study. All of the patients had a BMI that was between 40 and 50 — which is considered "severely obese" — but otherwise, they did not have other health problems, according to the researchers.

All of the patients lost a significant amount of weight after the procedure, the researchers said. After one month, the patients lost, on average, 5.9 percent of their excess body weight, according to the study. At the end of three months, the patients had lost an average of 9.5 percent of their excess weight, and by six months, an average of 13.3 percent of their excess weight.

In comparison, six months after surgery, patients who have had bariatric surgery may lose about 30 percent to 40 percent of their excess body weight, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In addition, the patients also reported dramatic reductions in their hunger levels, according to the researchers. To measure hunger, for several days before and after their follow-up visits, the researchers asked the participants to fill out a questionnaire about appetite and satiety (the feeling of fullness). Two weeks after the procedure, the patients reported, on average, an 81 percent average decrease in hunger; at one month, they reported an average decrease of 59 percent; and at three months, an average 26 percent decrease, according to the study.

The researchers also found that patients' ghrelin levels decreased by an average of 17.5 percent at three months after the procedure.

While the results of the study are promising, the "research is still in its early stages," Weiss said. The study demonstrated that the procedure is safe. Now, researchers can carry out more clinical trials with larger numbers of patients in order to test how effective the procedure may be, and how long-lasting its effects may be, he said.

The results of the study were presented on April 3 at the Society of Interventional Radiology's annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia. The findings have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Follow Sara G. Miller on Twitter @SaraGMiller. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.