BOTHELL, Wash. (AP) _ People tired of being chubby but with no interest in dieting, exercising or liposuction could soon have a new, pain-free option: fat-busting ultrasound.
Some of Silicon Valley's most prudent investors in medical devices have thrown $27 million at a company working to develop the technology in this northeast Seattle suburb.
LipoSonix CEO Jens Quistgaard, an electrical engineer and ultrasound expert recruited by venture capitalists two years ago, is working on the SonoSculpt device. The idea is to use high-intensity ultrasound waves, beamed about an inch under the skin, to break up fatty tissue without pain, scars, anesthesia or a long recovery time.
Ultrasound, long used as a diagnostic tool, can break up kidney stones and been used for years as a tool in liposuction, the surgical siphoning of fat.
Engineering the frequency and energy of an ultrasound beam to disrupt fat cells from outside, without damaging the skin or other tissues, presents an ``incredible technical challenge,'' Quistgaard said.
In testing on 30 people in Mexico, the treatment did not burn or seriously irritate the skin, and it reduced fat on the abdomen without causing serious complications by sending too much loose fat into the bloodstream, the company said.
The tests, which have not yet been published in medical literature, consisted of a few one-hour treatments, then three months of observation, Quistgaard said.
It's not clear exactly where the fat goes after ultrasound jolts it loose. LipoSonix and its medical advisers believe the body's immune system responds to the disrupted site, digests some fat cells and deposits others into the bloodstream. Other fat cells may migrate to other body parts, while others are excreted.
Quistgaard said he's fine-tuning the technology so the procedure takes less than an hour. When that is achieved, the company plans to launch a clinical trial in the United States, using a group of several hundred test patients.
The goal is to win approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and deliver SonoSculpt to the market in 2006.
If it works safely, the technology's appeal would be widespread.
Peter Fodor, president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, is so enthusiastic about SonoSculpt he joined the LipoSonix scientific advisory board.
``This is bound to totally revolutionize the approach to body sculpting,'' Fodor said.
Dr. Braden Stridde, a Federal Way plastic surgeon hired by a Seattle venture-capital firm to evaluate LipoSonix as an investment, believes the technology is safe.
``The company has taken a reasoned and cautious approach to development. There's good science behind this and good clinical trials that demonstrate efficacy,'' Stridde said.
Americans spent an estimated $9.4 billion last year on cosmetic surgery and nonsurgical cosmetic treatments like Botox, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
Liposuction, a procedure that commonly costs $4,000 to $9,000, was the most popular form of cosmetic surgery. More than 380,000 patients opted for it last year and generally paid out of their own pockets.
The liposuction market is worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and no one's sure just how many more people would opt for a similarly effective, equally costly, less-invasive procedure.
But Deborah Trigueiro, patient-care coordinator for Bellevue plastic surgeon Dr. David Stephens, said she figures plenty of people would give it a try.
``Anybody in their right mind, when given an option to not have to exercise and still to be able to look better in a bathing suit or at a wedding, can see that could be very big,'' Trigueiro said.
Quistgaard makes no apologies to people who dismiss SonoSculpt as another sign of American vanity run amok.
``The way I look at it, if society is at a stage where people are free to think about things like this, rather than where their next meal is coming from, that's positive,'' Quistgaard said.
``We're not saving babies here, but a person's body image and self-esteem are important and help them function to their maximum potential. If we can do that, and do it safely, that would be a great thing.''