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New Study Envisions Treating Obesity From Within

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   December 28, 2023

MIT researchers are working on an ingestible that vibrates when swallowed, tricking the stomach into thinking it’s full

Can a vibrating pill help healthcare providers create sustainable and effective weight loss treatments?

That’s the question researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are trying to answer as they experiment with the latest in healthcare ingestibles. The MIT team has developed a pill enhanced with technology that is programmed to vibrate for about 30 minutes after being swallowed, activating receptors within the body that signal the stomach is full.

“For somebody who wants to lose weight or control their appetite, it could be taken before each meal,” Shriya Srinivasan, a former MIT graduate student and assistant professor of bioengineering at Harvard University who’s leading the study, said in an MIT news piece. “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.”

[Read also: Are Ingestible Sensors Making a Comeback?]

The study, recently published in Science Advances, targets two trends in healthcare innovation that have been in the headlines lately.

Characterized by the popularity surrounding new drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy, healthcare providers are looking for new ways to address obesity and weight-related issues, which play a role in many chronic health conditions. Some 42% of US adults are affected by obesity, and it’s estimated that more than 160 million Americans are on a diet at any given time and spending more than $70 billion a year on commercial weight-loss plans, supplements and other diet programs.

Yet for all the products and treatments on the market, many people struggle to consistently stay within a diet plan, primarily because habits are very hard to break. Healthcare providers have long struggled to design treatment plans that are sustainable and keep patients engaged over the long run.

Digital health tools, such as digital therapeutics, aim to tackle that challenge by targeting behavior change.

One method of tackling behavior change is by tricking the body into thinking it’s full. For Srinivasan and Giovanni Traverso, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and MIT and a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, that led to the creation of the VIBES pill, which vibrates in the stomach, affecting the vagus nerve, which then sends messages to the brain that the stomach is full.

Srinivasan, Traverso, and their research team tested the VIBES pill on Yorkshire pigs, who were given the pill 20 minutes before being fed. They found that the pill not only stimulated the release of hormones that signaled satiety, but also reduced the animals’ food intake by about 40%.

The study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, Novo Nordisk, and the National Science Foundation, among others, is still in its early stages.

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

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

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.


Some 42% of American adults are dealing with obesity and more than 160 million are on some sort of diet plan, spending more than $70 billion a year.

Obesity and weight-related issues factor heavily into a wide range of chronic care concerns, affecting clinical outcomes.

For providers and patients who want to steer clear of medications and surgical procedures, digital health interventions hold promise for effective and sustained weight management.

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