IBM, Pfizer Collaborate on Parkinson's Disease IoT Research

IBM and Pfizer's Internet of things system will help remotely monitor real-time quality of life in Parkinson's disease patients.

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In honor of April being Parkinson’s Awareness Month, IBM and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced they have entered into a research collaboration to develop an Internet of things (IoT) remote monitoring solution that could transform the care of individuals that suffer from the debilitating Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson's disease is a chronic and progressive movement disorder that involves the malfunction and death of neurons in the brain. More than 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year, and the debilitating symptoms of the disease get progressively worse over time, requiring adjustments to medication dosing and timing or treatment changes.

Through a system of sensors, mobile devices, real-time analytics and machine learning, IBM hopes to provide researchers and clinicians with real-time, around-the-clock disease status information to help inform treatment decisions and speed the development of new and better therapies, said Ajay Royyuro, PhD., director of Healthcare and Life Sciences at IBM Research, in an interview with eWEEK.

The first phase of the project is to measure and quantify the symptoms that Parkinson’s individuals have. Today Parkinson’s patient symptoms are only measured when they visit their doctor. However, that only gives an episodic measurement, Royyuro said.

“In reality the symptoms that a Parkinson’s patient has really are continuous,” he said. “It’s relentless, the disease doesn’t go away. You take medication and the medication may modify the symptoms during the period that the medication is in you. And patients have ‘on’ periods where they are relieved by the drug during which they may also have some side effects, and then they have off periods where the drug is not in their body anymore and all the symptoms are severe. They may not have side effects but they have symptoms. So it’s kind of a seesaw that is continuous for them. There’s no off time for them; they’re never disease-free. So it’s this relentless characteristic of the disease that is very taxing to patients. And quantifying what exactly the symptoms are, minute by minute, is really the goal – to be able to document the symptoms and say what they are like and how they were able to deal with them.”

However, to get a minute-by-minute readout of symptoms, you have to monitor the symptoms as they occur in the environment that the patient is living their normal routine life in. It cannot be measured in a clinic.

“So you have to bring the measurement to the patient and not the patient to the measurement,” Royyuro said. “To do that you have to deploy sensors on the person and you have to deploy sensors, like the Internet of things, in the environment that they’re already in – such as in their kitchen, in their living room, in their bathroom. So the idea is to sprinkle their entire home environment with a wide array of sensors. Couple them in such a way that through analysis we are actually able to read, as detailed as possible, symptom information and quantitate the symptoms that they have. And symptoms vary in detail. So there is a tremor, for example, and that interferes with a lot of fine motor activity, like using a knife in the kitchen. Many Parkinson’s patients will not use sharp knives.”

This might require placing a wearable sensor on the elbow or wrist. The IBM/Pfizer joint effort also will seek to measure motor function using motion sensors to monitor changes in the patient’s walking pace or the time it takes to button a shirt, IBM said. Indeed, common wearables may be able to accurately track sleep and level of activity, while speech analysis may be able to spot changes in cognition, Royyuro said.

“We are experimenting with all available off-the-shelf devices including wearables and including things that require more than just an individual strapping it onto their bodies – like devices that could give you readouts like EKG and EEG,” Royyuro said. “It doesn’t mean that we’ll deploy them in the field, but we want to understand which of those give us signals that point us in the direction that we should be going.”