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Health

Test of balloon capsules for weight loss called success

Ben Schmitt
| Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016, 10:54 p.m.
Sherry Vukman, 53, of Wilkins was one of 24 Pittsburgh-area residents who ingested balloons that would be filled with gas to help them eat less and lose weight. Vukman lost 50 pounds while participating in the study.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Sherry Vukman, 53, of Wilkins was one of 24 Pittsburgh-area residents who ingested balloons that would be filled with gas to help them eat less and lose weight. Vukman lost 50 pounds while participating in the study.
Sherry Vukman, 53, of Wilkins was one of 24 Pittsburgh-area residents who ingested balloons that would be filled with gas to help them eat less and lose weight. Vukman lost 50 pounds while participating in the study.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Sherry Vukman, 53, of Wilkins was one of 24 Pittsburgh-area residents who ingested balloons that would be filled with gas to help them eat less and lose weight. Vukman lost 50 pounds while participating in the study.

Sherry Vukman used to dread any public excursion with her teenage daughter.

“I was always worried about looking like the overweight, frumpy mother,” she said. “I didn't feel good about myself.”

At the time, she weighed 210 pounds.

Then something happened last year. She swallowed a balloon — actually, she swallowed three.

She's now 50 pounds lighter.

Vukman, 53, of Wilkins was one of 24 Pittsburgh-area residents who ingested balloons that would be filled with gas to help them eat less and lose weight. Allegheny Health Network's West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield last year joined a clinical trial with 14 other national study sites.

The patients swallowed capsules containing small balloons tethered to catheters. When the balloons reached their stomachs, doctors inflated the balloons with a nitrogen mixed gas. The patients swallowed three capsules over several months.

To remove the balloons, doctors sedated the patients, deflated the balloons and used a scope to extract them through their mouths.

Vukman heard an ad about the clinical trial during an afternoon walk in April 2015. She swallowed her first capsule on May 6, 2015.

“I consider it like a Cinderella story. I came back to the office, filled out an application online, and the same day I received a call from West Penn inviting me to an informational meeting,” she said. “It was boom, boom, boom.”

A dietitian taught Vukman to eat healthier, and the balloons kept her from overeating. The devices, manufactured by San Diego-based Obalon Therapeutics, are designed to partially fill the stomach and help patients feel full.

The balloons helped obese people lose nearly 7 percent of their body weight, according to the national study.

Obesity is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having a body mass index of 30 or higher. BMI is a rough estimate of body fat based on height and weight measurements. About 79 million Americans are considered obese based on CDC guidelines.

The balloons can help prevent people from undergoing bariatric surgery, which is usually intended for people who are 80 to 100 pounds overweight.

At West Penn, people who were 30 to 80 pounds overweight qualified for the gastric balloon trial.

Dr. George Eid, a division chief at West Penn's Bariatric and Metabolic Institute, considered Vukman his star patient. He was a principal investigator in the study.

“If you look at what is happening in this country and around the world, obesity is reaching endemic proportions,” Eid said. “There are millions of patients who would not qualify for surgery but still need the help. It's hard for them to lose weight on their own. They have diabetes and other medical problems.”

For the clinical trials, 366 obese patients nationwide were placed into two groups. Half swallowed three Obalon balloons, and the rest took three placebo sugar capsules. The volunteers were between 22 and 64 years old.

Over six months, members of the placebo group lost 3.6 percent of their weight on average, and Obalon patients lost 6.8 percent.

“The good news is there were no significant complications,” Eid said, noting that minor side effects included nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing the trial results.

“Hopefully we hear something from the FDA within the next six months to a year,” he said.

Vukman, who works as an information technology administrator for National Industrial Lumber Co., believes her story is important to share with others.

“This was life-changing for me,” she said of her weight loss, which occurred over six months. “I will definitely say that I do have a better outlook on myself.”

Her daughter Hannah noticed the change, Vukman said.

“She can see the difference in how happy I am and how I look at myself in a more positive way,” Vukman said. “I hope that is an example for her.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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