IBM, Pfizer launch joint experiment to help measure Parkinson’s symptoms using IoT and analytics

What happens when you put a technology company together with a drug company and try to come up with unique new ways to understand Parkinson’s disease? You end up with a project that uses sensors on the body and in the home to provide continuous measurement of a patient’s symptoms and the impact they have on that person’s daily life, something that’s almost impossible to do right now.

Trying to track Parkinson’s symptoms is difficult today because they can vary widely throughout the day and doctors only see their patients on a periodic basis, says Ajay Royyuro, director of the Computational Biology Center at IBM Research. This makes any kind of meaningful measurement of the disease a challenge for patients, doctors and researchers.

To compensate for this, doctors may ask patients to keep symptom diaries, but these can be spotty or subjective and can’t provide a complete objective picture of an individual patient’s particular set of symptoms when dealing with the disease on a daily basis.

That’s why IBM and Pfizer have come up with this experiment, and it’s very much an experiment right now, to place sensors around the home and on the body of an individual giving off a continuous stream of data, that will be collected and compiled in some sort of data dashboard to make sense of the onslaught of information that a program like this could produce.

Pfizer’s role has to do with the drugs being used to treat the disease. Today, the dosage is an art and science trying to find that perfect dosage pattern throughout a day. It’s impossible to do without a continuous assessment and the goal is that through these experiments the team can create a program that would allow that flow of data from the patient to their medical team and provide more pinpoint dosing.

“We have an opportunity to potentially redefine how we think about patient outcomes and 24/7 monitoring, by combining Pfizer’s scientific, medical and regulatory expertise with IBM’s ability to integrate and interpret complex data in innovative ways,” Mikael Dolsten president of Pfizer Worldwide Research and Development said in a statement.

For starters, the experiment will take place at IBM’s research center where they plan to build an experimental apartment complete with kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room and begin testing different sensors in the space, working with people who have Parkinson’s as well as healthy people to provide a clear view how a range of people react to this kind of measuring.

While the sensors in the living area would signal activities like entering a room, opening a cabinet and so forth, the body sensors would provide more precise measurements of the person’s activity within the given room.

The hope is to eventually take this experiment out of the lab and find an ideal sensor pack that’s cost-effective and easy to set up and maintain in a large number of houses. If they succeed, they would conduct a real clinical trial, which Pfizer would help set up and administer.

Such a trial would not just involve the sensors, but also the requirements of any clinical trial, Royyuro explained. The goal then would be not just to monitor symptoms, but measure how well a set of therapies would work when combined with the monitoring tools.

“The solution has to scale. It has as to be robust enough to deploy in patient’s home and simultaneously do that in hundreds or even thousands of homes,” he explained.

IBM’s interest here isn’t strictly altruistic. It also sees a business opportunity involving big data, analytics, the cloud and internet of things, but ultimately it is about improving the lives of people through technology.

“I think there is real opportunity here to make a difference in the lives of patients. I have seen and have close contact with a family member with Parkinson’s and I can see how effective it would be to have this real-time symptomatic measurement and helping them make their lives better,” he said.