Research scientists based at the Wingate Institute for Neurogastroenterology, part of Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London, believe that they have discovered a way of treating obesity that will remove the need for gastric bypass surgery. They have discovered that the lower intestine could be targeted by a special food supplements which would trick the brain into thinking the stomach is full.
The treatment could pave the way for a new treatment for obesity and type II diabetes within the next five years and save thousands of people from requiring surgery currently used as a last resort to treat people who are dangerously overweight.
Professor Ashley Blackshaw, Professor of Enteric Neuroscience at the Wingate says: "The difference between lean people and obese ones is that obese people ignore the signals from the small intestine that tell the brain that the body is full.
"At the moment, obese patients undergo gastric bypass surgery where they are essentially re-plumbed - undigested food bypasses the small intestine and is shunted straight to the lower bowel where it causes the release of hormones which suppress the appetite and help with the release of insulin. That makes the patient feel full and stops even the hungriest individual from eating.
"We believe it's possible to trick the digestive system into behaving as if a bypass has taken place by administering specific food supplements which release strong stimuli in the same area of the lower bowel.
"It's a bit like sending a special food parcel straight to the body's emergency exit, and when it gets there, all the alarms go off."
Bypass surgery is the most effective current treatment for obesity and type II diabetes. There are rapid benefits in terms of weight loss and improvement in blood sugar levels. The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has just produced new draft guidelines suggesting its use could be expanded in the NHS to tackle an epidemic of type 2 diabetes.
But surgical treatments have drawbacks, including irreversibility and cost.
"What we are doing is targeting the area of the gut where that sense of feeling full begins with a capsule containing naturally occurring food supplements," said Professor Blackshaw.
"By refining those high-energy supplements and formulating them to target the lower bowel, we expect to develop a successful weight loss and anti-diabetic strategy before, and possibly in place of, bypass surgery.
"We are pursuing the opportunity to intervene directly with fatty acid, amino acid and protein sensing pathways of the lower bowel to modify endocrine responses.
"It's a totally novel idea, and we're very excited at the results so far. We are hopeful that the treatment will be widely available in NHS hospitals in the next five years."
He added that the only predicted side-effect is nausea which could be easily controlled.
There has been a marked increase in obesity in the UK. In 1993, 15 per cent of the population were obese. In 2011, this rose to 25 per cent. At the same time, weight-loss surgery has increased 30-fold in the last decade. More than 8,000 operations take place annually on the NHS, and many more through private clinics.
Gastric bypass surgery is irreversible and patients must take food supplements for the rest of their lives.
The research was funded by the charity Bowel & Cancer Research and the Wellcome Trust. The findings have been published in GUT, the international journal of gastroenterology and hepatology.