Supporting Parkinson’s Patients Worldwide
Professor George Roussos, Department of Computer Science
Professor George Roussos, Department of Computer Science, is a pioneer in the world of computing systems. Supported by funding from The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, he is leading cutting-edge research into the use of technology to develop the treatment and management of Parkinson’s disease.
“Some of the biggest lessons have come through interactions with the patients“
Around 10 million people worldwide have Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition that causes parts of the brain to become progressively damaged over many years, with symptoms including tremors throughout the body and slow movement. For the last few years, Professor of Pervasive Computing George Roussos and his team at Birkbeck have been closely monitoring these core symptoms using digital health technology, with the aim of improving the management of the condition in patients.
George and the team have developed a new smartphone app called cloudUPDRS, which records patients’ symptoms by measuring and analysing data about their tremors, gait and tapping performance on a touchscreen device. The app allows the collection of objective data about symptoms, which is then processed into digital biomarkers by PDKit, an open-source analytics toolkit also developed by the team. These biomarkers can be used by healthcare professionals to assess disease progression and suggest changes to treatment. Further down the line, the team hope to develop a healthcare app that is more focused on detecting changes in the disease within a shorter timeframe.
For George, understanding the person behind the condition is as important as the technology itself: “Some of the biggest lessons have come through interactions with the patients. It’s helped us to adapt the technology to fit with their lived experiences rather than requiring them to change everyday habits to cater to the clinical protocol. But it’s also just been eye-opening to understand more about the impact that Parkinson’s has on people’s lives. As a computer scientist, you’re often hidden behind the screen, so it can be easy to forget that you are dealing with real people. It’s been a moving and rewarding part of the process.”
Yet, this strand of research has been touching the lives of people for some time. George says, “I’ve had an interest in the healthcare applications of computer science for a while. Previously, my team and I looked at long-term healthcare support for people with adult congenital heart disease and cervical cancer patients. But this specific project came out of a request by a group of clinicians that came to us and said we think this might be a useful thing to do for Parkinson’s.”
“At the time, clinical studies employed complicated biomedical equipment to measure tremors and other symptoms. The equipment costs about £20,000 but the software and the hardware could only be used in the lab. The point of what we’re doing is that we could replace all of that with a £100 smartphone and patients can do it themselves at home. The first study we did was to demonstrate that we could get good enough data and do the required calculations with a phone.”
One of the challenges of using digital health technology to improve understanding of Parkinson’s is that the disease presents itself very differently from individual to individual. It is therefore difficult to make the technology and data it captures universally recognised and accepted. George has addressed this by joining forces with several organisations to try to establish more widely agreed measures. These include non-profit organisations like The Michael J. Fox Foundation, who approached him in 2016 and funded the development of PDkit, and the Critical Path Institute, which specialises in the development process for medical products.
International collaboration is critical to George’s research and importantly, ensuring that a comparatively small organisation like Birkbeck can maintain a global presence in digital healthcare: “The key ingredient is establishing partnerships with clinical and pharmaceutical collaborators. These partnerships have helped us on the journey toward making a real impact, by supporting the licensing of the app and the analytics software, and the delivery of several clinical trials internationally. We are also now working with Luca Healthcare who are interested in commercialising and scaling the app for deployment in China.”