Swallowing a balloon sounds unhealthy, but recent research says doing just that may be a noninvasive way to fill up the stomach and curb appetite, aiding in weight loss. The system is called Obalon, and according to HealthDay, it has already helped obese people lose up to 7 percent of their body weight.

“Patients swallow a capsule containing a balloon tethered to a small catheter,” Dr. Shelby Sullivan, study author and director of bariatric endoscopy at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told HealthDay. “Once it’s reached the stomach, we inflate the balloon with a nitrogen-mixed gas.”

When expanded, the balloon holds about 1 cup of gas, taking up room in the stomach and reducing eating urges, according to researchers. The process requires patients to ingest three capsules in total. Two capsules follow the initial balloon at three and nine weeks to attain the desired volume. After six months, the balloons are removed via endoscopy, which takes around 15 minutes.

“Because there’s no incision and no breaking of the skin we don’t think of it as ‘invasive,’” Sullivan said.

The balloons have not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but Obalon Therapeutics, the system’s manufacturer, is conducting several studies to assess its benefits. Sullivan and her team will present their findings at the Digestive Disease Week meeting in San Diego next week, just as a second balloon system, called Elipse, is undergoing testing. Unlike Obalon, Elipse involves a balloon that fills with distilled water, and can be excreted without endoscopy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 78 million adults in the United States are considered obese — that’s one in three. For those struggling with “extreme obesity,” or a body mass index of 40 or higher, there are several invasive treatment options available. Adjustable gastric banding is one of the most popular options, though it can be expensive and requires post-surgical care.

For the Obalon study, the researchers divided 366 obese patients into two groups, one of which swallowed the three balloons while the other three ingested placebo capsules. After six months, the placebo group lost an average of 3.6 percent of their weight, compared to 6.8 percent among the Obalon patients.

Sullivan called the balloon system a “step forward” compared to current balloon options.

“Current balloons require giving patients a lot of anti-nausea and anti-spasmodic medications,” she explained. “The Obalon is a lot better tolerated. And while current balloons prompt 80 percent of their weight loss in the first three months before trailing off, we didn’t see any slow-down over time in the rate of weight loss with the Obalon.”

Sullivan admitted that it is unlikely the system would be immediately covered by insurance. Assuming it would be around the same price as other balloon systems, she estimated the cost of Obalon as around $1,500. The system is much farther along the approval process than Elipse, and could be available by the end of the year.

According to Dr. John Morton, past president of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, however, Elipse may eventually be a superior choice.

“I think the Elipse is potentially truly revolutionary because it’s something that you can swallow and, unlike Obalon, excrete on your own,” he said. “And the other issue is that saline balloons always do better than air balloons, which not everyone can easily swallow.”

Morton also acknowledged that Obalon has been available internationally for years, and it is difficult to draw comparisons between the two this early.

Source: Sullivan S, et al. The Obalon Swallowable 6-Month Balloon System is More Effective Than Moderate Intensity Lifestyle Therapy Alone: Results From a Six-Month Randomized Sham Controlled Trial. Digestive Disease Week. 2016.