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IBM and Michael J. Fox Foundation make a breakthrough in fighting Parkinson’s

To a generation, Michael J. Fox is Marty McFly, the plucky underdog hero of the Back to the Future movies. But, through his battles with Parkinson’s disease and his foundation’s efforts to help find a cure for the terrible neurodegenerative disorder, he’s also emerged as something of a hero in real life as well.

In early 2019, IBM Research and the Michael J. Fox Foundation announced a collaboration to dig deeper into Parkinson’s disease data with the use of cutting-edge A.I. technologies. The idea was to use new types of smart machine learning technologies to find effective treatments for a disease that has proven exceptionally difficult to treat. On Friday, August 7, the team announced new progress resulting from their collaboration.

Specifically, they have built an A.I. that can help clinicians work out exactly how far a person’s Parkinson’s symptoms have progressed. This is a particularly difficult observation to make since medication can mask certain symptoms such as involuntary tremors. While simply categorizing the progression of a disease might not sound like a proactive move in fighting Parkinson’s, it’s a crucially important step in the process. That is because it can help medical experts to design better, more efficient personalized treatment plans for patients. It can also assist drug development by allowing scientists to better recruit the right participants for clinical trials for possible new cures.

“In this initial study, we focused on using only clinical data as measured by the Movement Disorder Society’s Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale,” Kristen Severson of IBM Research told Digital Trends. “We plan to expand our analysis to use additional data in future work. Our goal is to learn a progression model of Parkinson’s disease which uses a small number of disease states to label patients based on their symptoms and progression. Because Parkinson’s disease has diverse symptoms affecting both motor and non-motor function, disease state definitions can be complex. We hope that such a model could be used for patient care management, cohort generation, and clinical trial outcome modeling.”

There are plenty of high-tech and groundbreaking scientific approaches being explored by various labs right now when it comes to the treatment of Parkinson’s. However, when it comes to leveraging the latest machine learning tools and having access to the best supercomputers, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a giant like IBM in your corner.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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