SAN FRANCISCO –
“We see this as a field that GI should own,” said Naresh T. Gunaratnam, MD, a gastroenterologist at Huron Gastro in Ypsilanti, Mich., who has made obesity treatment an important part of his practice.
Gastroenterologists are uniquely qualified in endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty and in the placement of intragastric balloons and can also bring their internal medicine training to bear in patient education and medical prescription, Dr. Gunaratnam said in an interview.
He and three colleagues spoke about innovation in obesity and metabolism at the 2023 AGA Tech Summit sponsored by the AGA Center for GI Innovation and Technology.
Significant hurdles remain to launching new endoscopic devices for treating obesity, but evidence shows that the existing treatments are effective when combined with medication and other treatments, said panelist Reem Z. Sharaiha, MD, MSc, a gastroenterologist with expertise in obesity at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. “You can never find just one cure for obesity, you should always think about a combination.”
Obesity rates continue to spiral worldwide, with over 100 million adults in the United States weighing in at over 30 kg/m2, said Dr. Sharaiha, but less than 5% per year receive adequate treatment. The condition is driving upticks in diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and contributing to cancer, heart disease, stroke, and COVID-19 infections.
Even small reductions in body weight can significantly improve these conditions, she said. Less than a 5% in total body weight on average results in significant reductions in HbA1c, triglycerides, blood pressure and steatosis.
In recent years, the Food and Drug Administration has several devices that gastroenterologists can use to treat obesity, Dr. Sharaiha said, including three brands of intragastric balloon used to reduce appetite by filling the stomach. The AGA now recommends such an intragastric balloon for people with obesity who have “failed a trial of conventional weight-loss strategies.”
But many devices have been withdrawn from the market, including two of the balloon systems. Why do so many devices fail? Sometimes the FDA demands trials that are too expensive, Dr. Sharaiha said. The COVID-19 pandemic put financial pressure on some companies that have already secured FDA approval. Some insurance companies are not willing to pay for the devices, even after the FDA has approved them. Some are not cost effective.
And sometimes patients don’t accept them. That may have been one challenge with Aspire’s AspireAssist, which allowed patients to empty their stomachs into the toilet using a surgically implanted tube, though the company cited “the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic” when it withdrew the device from the market last year.
More devices are in the pipeline, but they face an uncertain path forward, Dr. Sharaiha said. “Device companies are usually startups that need funding. With the economic downturn, venture capital funding is hard to get.”
In the meantime, patients with class 3 obesity in particular may benefit from surgery, she said.
For others, medications are playing a more important role in the obesity epidemic, with an average 10%-15% body weight loss, Dr. Sharaiha said. Injections with semaglutide (Ozempic), a glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) receptor agonist that is approved to improve glycemic control in adults with type 2 diabetes mellitus, is leading the charge.
Tirzepatide (Mounjaro) may be even more effective, Dr. Sharaiha said. The FDA approved the drug last year to improve blood sugar control in adults with type 2 diabetes and was fast-tracked in October for the treatment of adults with obesity, or who are overweight with weight-related comorbidities.
Medications provide add-on benefits to many patients who have been treated with intragastric balloons or endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty, Dr. Sharaiha said.
Also lifestyle and education should not be neglected, said Dr. Gunaratnam, who lost 50 pounds by changing his diet. He urged gastroenterologists to take on the challenge of treating obesity. It’s not the part of his practice with the best reimbursement, but it is the most satisfying. “I get more hugs, cards, and tears by doing this because when you change weight, you’re impacting every part of their lives,” he said.
Dr. Gunaratnam is the founder of Lean Medical LLC and Satya Health Sciences. Dr. Sharaiha has served as a consultant for Boston Scientific Corporation and Cook Medical Inc.