Michael J Fox charity turns to tech

Written By andika jamanta on Rabu, 13 Agustus 2014 | 23.59

13 August 2014 Last updated at 17:26 By Leo Kelion Technology desk editor

The Michael J Fox Foundation is attempting to use wearable sensors to monitor the symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

The charity has teamed up with Intel to equip patients with smartwatches made by the tech firm's Basis division.

The organisations carried out tests earlier in the year and now plan to release an app to help doctors study the effects of different medications.

The effort has been given a cautious welcome by other researchers.

The actor Michael J Fox created his New York-based foundation in 2000 after being diagnosed with the degenerative neurological disorder.

It is believed that Parkinson's is brought on by a mixture of genetic and environmental factors, but the exact cause is still unknown.

Its symptoms can include tremors and other uncontrollable movements, impaired balance and co-ordination, stiffness, slowness of movement, loss of smell, a decline in intellectual functioning, and speech and swallowing problems.

It is estimated to affect about five million people worldwide and usually, but not always, occurs in old age.

The link up between with Intel came about through the tech firm's former chief executive Andy Grove, who serves as a senior advisor to the foundation and has been diagnosed with Parkinson's himself.

"This opportunity really will allow us the chance to uncover novel breakthroughs in Parkinson's disease by truly understanding how people are living with the disease today, how are they responding to treatments, what are their unmet needs," said chief executive of the Michael J Fox Foundation.

Record-keeping app

The wearables study is intended to provide researchers with more accurate data than can be obtained via traditional, subjective methods.

A preliminary test was funded by the two organisations earlier this year that equipped 16 Parkinson's patients and nine control volunteers with the devices for four days.

The watches allowed more than 300 data points to be recorded every second, translating to one gigabyte of data per patient a day. The information was then uploaded to Intel's system by a smartphone carried by those involved.

Over the period the participants kept paper-and-pen diaries and attended two clinical visits where they engaged in tests designed for the disease.

Intel data scientists are still processing the findings.

In addition to checking that the wearable tech's records correlate with those taken by the parties involved, they aim to develop algorithms that will allow body movement symptoms and sleep patterns to be automatically measured and made available for review in real time.

The next phase of the study involves releasing an app that allows patients to record how they are feeling and to report their medication intake, to help scientists measure the efficacy of the drugs and inform medics when they are deciding prescriptions.

This stage of the trial will be carried out in Boston, New York and Israel.

Diane Bryant, general manager of the Intel's data centre group, said that the data was encrypted and anonymised to safeguard patients' privacy.

She added that the intention was for the platform to be eventually opened up to others so that further research centres could contribute to the study.

Parkinson's UK welcomed the development, but cautioned that it was too soon to know how useful the results would be.

"The potential of using new technology to aid clinical decision making and help people with Parkinson's to get the right treatment is exciting," Suma Surendranath, professional engagement manger at the charity, told the BBC.

"However, it would be crucial that any device should demonstrate its effectiveness in robust clinical trials before becoming more widely available.

"New technology that has been proven to accurately represent the complexity of symptoms of people with Parkinson's could be a very useful addition to the tools currently available to professionals."


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