NYU Abu Dhabi develops electrical 'pill' to treat diabetes and obesity

Ingestible capsule is designed to regulate appetite through electrical stimulation of the gut

The pill's design was inspired by the water-wicking skin of the Australian thorny devil lizard. Photo: NYUAD
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A new electrical pill that aims to regulate people's appetites could be the next promising treatment for diabetes and obesity.

The smart capsule, called Flash – which stands for fluid-wicking capsule for active simulation and hormone modulation – has been developed by a team of researchers from NYU Abu Dhabi and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The ingestible capsule is a non-invasive electrical device that works by stimulating the stomach and triggering the brain to regulate gut hormones related to hunger.

It is designed to suppress hunger levels by sending electric shocks through the stomach once swallowed.

The pill could be used to treat eating disorders such as obesity and anorexia, and other medical conditions that benefit from adjusting someone's food intake.

The World Health Organisation estimates that a billion people in the world are living with obesity, while 422 million people worldwide have diabetes.

About one in five people in the UAE have diabetes, with that ratio expected to double by 2040.

The condition is usually associated with obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet.

"Flash is one of the first ingestible electroceutical that can regulate precise neurohormonal circuits, while avoiding the discomfort patients can experience with invasive treatments," Khalil Ramadi said in a press release.

In a study co-authored by Prof Ramadi and published in Science Robotics, the researchers revealed they were able to trigger the release of ghrelin — an appetite hormone — using Flash in trials on pigs, by orally administering a single pill.

Its design was inspired by the water-wicking skin of the Australian thorny devil lizard, which allows it to connect directly to the stomach tissue to regulate hunger-triggering hormones.

Researchers now believe Flash could be used as an alternative to diabetes treatments such as insulin, as well as other medical conditions, including heart disease and eating disorders, that require medication or surgery.

Prof Ramadi, who led the team of researchers, said that further development of the pill could go on to offer customisation for patients, and even treat neuropsychological conditions such as depression and anxiety.

According to the researchers, Flash requires no surgical intervention and has no side effects, unlike other medications used to treat diabetes and eating disorders which can cause unwanted side effects such as restlessness, nausea, uncontrolled weight gain, headaches and muscle spasms.

Doctors are now doing pre-clinical testing with the goal of starting human trials with an advanced prototype within five years.

Updated: April 27, 2023, 11:52 AM