scorecardForget Ozempic injections — scientists are working on an electronic pill that could regulate appetite
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Forget Ozempic injections — scientists are working on an electronic pill that could regulate appetite

Hilary Brueck   

Forget Ozempic injections — scientists are working on an electronic pill that could regulate appetite
LifeScience3 min read
The ingestible, electronic fluid-wicking capsule for active stimulation and hormone modulation (FLASH).    NYU Tandon School of Engineering
  • Scientists are developing an electronic pill that interacts with a key hormone in the stomach.
  • They claim the pill stimulates ghrelin, an appetite-encouraging hormone, to help people eat more.

Ozempic, the blockbuster diabetes and weight loss drug, works by mimicking a hormone people produce to feel full. But what if instead of artificially mimicking a hunger hormone, you could stimulate one we already have?

Scientists at NYU are creating an appetite-regulating pill that works by sending electronic pulses out in the stomach, triggering our natural stores of ghrelin — a gut hormone that makes people feel hungry. If successful, this technology could be swallowed by patients who are struggling to eat, triggering their natural urge to nibble. People undergoing cancer treatment or other issues that can make it hard to want to eat, like ARFID (avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder), are some of the groups that could initially be helped by this tool.

The reverse is theoretically also true — researchers speculate the same technology could one day be harnessed in a slightly different way to stop people from feeling hungry if they struggle with overeating.

The pill has only been tested in pigs so far, but NYU Assistant Professor Khalil Ramadi, a bioengineering expert who helped invent the new pill, told Insider that the tech — after it is safely manufactured for people and OK'd by the US Food and Drug Administration — could be tried out in humans within the next five years.

"It's fundamentally a new concept for how we can treat disease," Ramadi said. Without any drugs or surgery, "we can actually increase hunger promoting hormones," just by stimulating the ones the body already has on board.

man injecting ozempic
Ozempic is a weekly, injectable drug that artificially mimics satiety-regulating hormones.      Getty Images

The hunger-regulating pill could increase or decrease appetite

The pill is essentially a bit of electronic coil that delivers electronic stimulation only when it comes in contact with gastric juices in the stomach. It's wrapped inside a special coating that is designed to pop off once it touches gastric fluids, turning the pill on for about 20 to 30 minutes, and stimulating the hunger-increasing hormone ghrelin.

Giles Yeo, a professor of neuroscience at Cambridge who studies how brains control body weight, told Insider the idea is a "wonderful concept." Yeo was not involved in creating the pill.

"The concept of manipulating gut hormones I think is a good one, in either direction — increase or decrease," he said.

Both Yeo and Ramadi say it's easy to imagine such an appetite-stimulating pill working in reverse: Making an appetite-suppressing therapy like Ozempic, but without any drugs involved. Ramadi imagines a future electric pill competing with Ozempic by stimulating the vagus nerve in the area of the lower chest where the esophagus meets the stomach, a technique that's already been shown to blunt hunger signals in patients who have had that nerve stimulated surgically.

Yeo suggested, alternatively, that a pill could be dispatched further down in the body, beyond the stomach and inside the gut, where more of our appetite-suppressing hormones hang out.

The pill still has some hurdles to overcome before it's ready for market

There are still many challenges that scientists need to work out before such a pill will be ready for swallowing by humans.

Any electrical stimulation to the stomach, esophagus, or intestines has to be very precisely targeted. Otherwise, it's possible that the hunger-increasing and hunger-decreasing hormones comingling in our stomachs could just cancel each other out, doing nothing at all to change our appetites. On top of that, the pill's side effects still need to be worked out — gut hormones are very sensitive, and if you excite them too much you can end up with vomiting or explosive diarrhea.

Another issue is that the pill isn't really biodegradable, so it's not technically a flushable, marketable design — yet. In its current state, people would either have to take the pill in a controlled setting like a hospital, where their stool can be collected, or they'd have to fish their electric pill out of the toilet afterwards, a rather unappealing process.

But if the pill is ultimately successful as an appetite-suppressant, Yeo imagined it could be one more tool in the "arsenal" of newfound appetite drugs, like Ozempic and Mounjaro.

"Maybe I'm someone that needs to lose a few pounds," he said. "So I don't need a big drug in me, I just need to feel a little bit less hungry, for the next month."




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