Parkinson’s Breakthrough: What Michael J. Fox & IBM’s Partnership Means for Parkinson’s Research

Michael J. Fox and IBM are looking for a solution for Parkinson's Disease. Photo by rafzin p on Unsplash
Michael J. Fox and IBM are looking for a solution for Parkinson’s Disease. Photo by rafzin p on Unsplash

Michael J. Fox, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 at the age of 29, has become one of the foremost advocates in the effort to find a cure for this neurodegenerative disease. Through his foundation for Parkinson’s research, which he set up in 1998 after a long battle with depression and alcohol abuse brought on by his diagnosis, he has been able to grow awareness and undertake some of the most ambitious Parkinson’ s-related research ever—including spearheading a $100 million effort to understand the biological markers of the disease.

One of the more recent projects Fox and his foundation have been working on has led them to team up with IBM and their artificial intelligence system known as Watson.

Michael J. Fox Parkinson’s Foundation Teams Up with IBM

The Michael J. Fox Parkinson's Foundation partners with a leader in Artificial Intelligence  Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash
The Michael J. Fox Parkinson’s Foundation partners with a leader in Artificial Intelligence Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

For a disease that has no definitive biological test for diagnosis in a living person, and who’s progression is notoriously difficult to track due to this lack of biological-level testing, it can be incredibly complicated for doctors and patients alike to track the effectiveness of treatments and interventions. A lack of objective measurements also means that clinical trials for new medications and treatments must rely on observational data about subjects’ symptoms to determine efficacy, rather than on tracking the actual biological progression of the disease.

While the ideal goal of Parkinson’s research is to find physical, objective biomarkers which allow doctors to measure the disease’s progress objectively—and ultimately find a cure—until we are able to find these markers, researchers, and advocates like Fox, are having to think more creatively about how we track the progression of Parkinson’s disease in patients.

It was this creative thinking that led the Michael J. Fox Foundation to team up with IBM in an effort to find better ways for diagnosing, tracking, and treating patients living with this chronic, degenerative neurological disorder.

How Their Partnership Impacts Research on Parkinson’s

Since 2010, when the Michael J. Fox Foundation began sponsoring the massive, longitudinal clinical study known as the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI) in search of these biological markers for Parkinson’s Disease, they have collected enormous amounts of data through observational studies, biological sampling, and clinical and behavioral assessments.

Though this data has proven incredibly useful for research teams looking for answers to one of medicine’s most stubborn challenges, it may be that a gameshow-playing robot is precisely what they needed to tap into the full potential of the available information.

IBM, using their advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning system known as Watson, is aiming to build algorithms which can help doctors and researchers diagnose and track the progress of this disease by uncovering patterns and clues hidden in the data.

The ability to process millions of data points across hundreds of variables in the time it would take a traditional computer system to download a Back to the Future film means IBM may be able to help researchers develop new ways to treat and provide comfort to people living with Parkinson’s disease faster than ever before.

Announcement of Parkinson’s Disease Research Breakthrough

On August 07, the team made an exciting announcement regarding the progress they have made since starting the partnership in 2019.

The team members at IBM have been able to use the raw data provided by the Michael J. Fox Foundation and the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative to finally create an A.I. that can effectively track the progression of symptoms in Parkinson’s patients.

While it may not seem like the most significant medical breakthrough of the decade, the fact is it does give both doctors and researchers dedicated to treating Parkinson’s disease a powerful new tool for helping patients.

The artificial intelligence tool, powered by machine learning algorithms, is able to determine the presence and severity of Parkinson’s disease in ways never before possible. With this new information available to doctors and medical researchers, they may now have a new way to research medications and other treatment options, and hopefully, one day finally find a cure.

What this Breakthrough Means for the Future of Parkinson’s Treatment

The partnership between the MIchael J. Fox Foundation and IBM will help researchers.  Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash
The partnership between the MIchael J. Fox Foundation and IBM will help researchers. Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

But what exactly does this new ability to determine the progression of the disease’s symptoms mean for scientists on the front lines of Parkinson’s research?

One of the principal benefits is the ability to track whether novel medications are producing tangible benefits to patients over time. By recording the severity of symptoms across time, scientists will now be able to more accurately determine whether a new treatment is effectively slowing the progress of the disease, or ideally, reducing the severity and prevalence of symptoms.

In addition, this ability to accurately determine symptoms and severity brings us one step closer to being able to develop unified systems of classification for the disease’s progression. Parkinson’s is notoriously difficult to classify due in part to the fact that the disease affects has diverse symptoms, which can affect the motor and non-motor functions of each individual in slightly different ways.

But this announcement from IBM and the Michael J. Fox Foundation had tangible benefits for more than just scientists looking to classify subjects and track study participants’ progress. It also can help medical doctors treat the Parkinson’s patients they see every day by allowing them to more accurately measure their patient’s symptoms based on standardized rating scales.

Conclusion

“A time traveler and a robot join forces to fight one of humanity’s greatest threats…”

While that may sound like the synopsis of a summer movie blockbuster, the reality is much more exciting.

For doctors working every day to find a way to treat Parkinson’s, having these two on their team might just be exactly what they need to win this battle once and for all.