A raised BMI is a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and even some cancers. Anually, $190 billion is spent in the US alone on medical costs associated with obesity. Worldwide, obesity has more than doubled since 1980. Close to 2 billion people are overweight, and of these 600 million are obese. Although once considered a high-income country problem, it is now on the rise in low- and middle-income countries as well, particularly in urban settings.
The Boston-based startup Gelesis is developing novel therapies to safely induce weight loss and improve glycemic control in overweight and obese patients. Their lead product, Gelesis100, is a capsulated hydrogel that is administered orally, designed to increase satiety and decrease hunger, resulting in reduced caloric intake and weight loss.
Gelesis100 is administered prior to a meal, and its particles of a superabsorbent polymer is released and expanded in the stomach by absorbing water. The resulting pressure on the stomach’s walls sends signals to the brain that the stomach is full. The particles also mix with food, which delay gastric emptying and create a barrier of the small intestine to slow absorption of glucose. Enzymes in the large intestine break the particles down, releasing the water and allowing the polymer to pass out with the rest of the stool.
Current obesity therapies have either serious side effects or are considered invasive or with less desirable administration routes. However, the concept of fooling the stomach into thinking it is full is not novel, but Gelesis100 is more effective and made of components listed by the FDA as “generally recognized as safe” for use in foods. And because it isn’t absorbed into the bloodstream, it should avoid some of the major side effects associated with other weight loss drugs.
While we need better treatment options for obesity, it is also important to highlight that it will not solve the public health concern alone. To do that, we need a broad collaboration across organizations and industries. On an individual level, we need to be more active and learn how to eat healthier. However, this will only have an effect if people have access to a healthy lifestyle. Therefore, a sustained political commitment is needed, as well as a food industry that promote a healthy affordable diet, with responsible marketing strategies. Some might even benefit from psychotherapy to understand their cravings and behavior. Gelesis need to collaborate with these different stakeholders in order to find its place, identify who will benefit the most, and who it is ethical to give such a treatment option to. Only then can the company reach its full potential.