A potentially pioneering obesity treatment that uses microscopic beads as its weapon of choice continues to pass muster in the real world, researchers primarily from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore announced Sunday.

Presenting their preliminary findings at the Society of Interventional Radiology's 2016 Annual Scientific Meeting this week, the team reported that the nonsurgical treatment, coined bariatric arterial embolization (BAE), led to a reduction in the appetite and weight of five relatively healthy patients living with morbid obesity, all while having no major side effects. Three months after the procedure, patients had on average lost 5.9 percent of their excess weight; at 6 months, that expanded to 13.3 percent. A similar trend was seen in their levels of ghrelin, a hormone known to stir up our hunger.

"These early results demonstrate that BAE appears to be effective in helping patients lose a significant amount of weight in the short and intermediate term," said lead researcher Dr. Clifford Weiss, an associate professor of radiology and radiological science and director of interventional radiology research at Johns Hopkins, in a statement. "Compared to a surgical gastric bypass procedure, BAE is significantly less invasive and has a much shorter recovery time."

In the treatment, doctors block certain arteries that supply blood to the uppermost curved region of the stomach known as the fundus. Because the fundus is coincidentally one of the major bases of ghrelin production, the researchers theorized the decreased blood flow would also reduce the amount of ghrelin circulating in the body.

While there are many hormones capable of suppressing hunger, ghrelin has been of particular interest to obesity scientists because of its unique ability to also actively promote appetite. Some studies have shown that gastric bypasses may work to reduce weight not merely by limiting the amount of food we can consume at any one time, but also by dramatically reducing our levels of ghrelin. Interestingly, this works in reverse for people who lose weight only by dieting: Their ghrelin levels become and stay elevated, a phenomenon which may partially explain the lack of long-term success for most dieters.

BAE has been in the pipeline for nearly a decade; several of the current researchers first testing it out in pigs in 2007. Over the years, they have refined the technique and now use image guidance and catheters to access the arteries and so-called “microspheres” as the damming agent. They and others first embarked on this current study in 2014, calling it the Bariatric Embolization of Arteries for the Treatment of Obesity, or BEAT, trial.

Of the five patients, one suffered a small ulcer in the fundus two weeks into the study, which cleared up by the 3 month mark; another developed a temporary inflammation of the pancreas, though it caused no noticeable physical symptoms. Two were able to leave the hospital the same night of the procedure, while three stayed for no more than two days to manage their nausea, vomiting, and pain. Perhaps most importantly, the patients overall reported an improvement in their quality of life.

Encouraging as the findings are, they still represent the earliest stages of clinical success. Though the study completes its first phase of data collection later this May, Weiss noted enthusiastically that their work is far from finished.

“We're excited about the promise of bariatric arterial embolization as another tool for health care providers to offer patients in the effort to curb this epidemic,” he said. “As this study expands and includes more patients, we will be able to gain more insight into the efficacy of BAE and the role interventional radiology can play in the critical battle against obesity."

Source: Weiss C, Akinwande O, Paudel K, et al. Bariatric embolization of arteries for the treatment of obesity (BEAT Obesity): 3-month safety and efficacy data. Journal of Vascular and Interventional Radiology. 2016.