Michael J. Fox Foundation funds Birkbeck professor’s research for Parkinson’s patients

The Michael J. Fox Foundation has pledged more than £100,000 towards the academic's work.

The toolkit will record data from the cloudUPDRS app, which asks users to hold out their phones in order to record kinetic and postural tremors.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation, the world’s largest non-profit funder of Parkinson’s research, has awarded a Birkbeck, University of London academic more than £100,000 to enable analysis of data from people with Parkinson’s Disease (PD).

Professor George Roussos, from Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics received the grant from The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF) to help build on smartphone and wearable-device apps that record information on a patient’s motor symptoms of PD, including tremors, rigidity and posture instability.

The project will develop a software ‘toolkit’ that will be used to analyse data including information collected by Professor Roussos’ cloudUPDRS app. Developed in 2013, the app can provide objective clinical assessments of the disease and is currently undergoing clinical trials at University College London Hospitals (UCLH).

Professor Roussos said: “One of the biggest challenges for managing and monitoring PD is that the patient’s motor symptoms, which are one of the main diagnostic characteristics, are affected by lots of factors ranging from food and exercise to social interactions and mood.

“Their motor performance fluctuates widely hour by hour and day by day, so making sense of the disease progression requires a considerable amount of observations that filter out the effects of these factors and come up with a dependable assessment of the stage of the disease.”

Patients can use the app at home to record their movements while performing a series of simple actions with each limb, such as tapping the screen to assess speed of movement and holding the phone on their knee to assess tremors. The data captured by the phone’s sensors is used to calculate the clinical UPDRS (Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale) score through biomedical signal processing.

The toolkit will be released as open source software to enable free and inclusive access to the software needed by the PD research community, with a view to support therapeutic development and cost-effective clinical trial evidence collection.

Professor Roussos said: “The toolkit will help us develop clinical measures that could lead to early identification of problems such as side-effects from medications and individualized patient profiles that help with personalized assessment.”

The MJFF was launched by actor Michael J. Fox in 2000 following his diagnosis of young-onset Parkinson’s in 1991. The MJFF has funded more than USD750 million in research to date and has fundamentally altered the trajectory of progress toward a cure for Parkinson’s.

Professor Roussos said the grant provides his team with an opportunity to focus on the community and the software, rather than the academic outputs.

He said: “The MJFF is unique in recognising the transformative role of computational tools to fight disease and is making sizeable investments to make this a reality.”

Mark Frasier, PhD, senior vice president of research programmes at the Foundation said: “The MJFF is dedicated to advancing critical research tools to accelerate PD therapeutic development.

“An open-source computational toolbox could help validate meaningful disease insights from data collected on wearable devices and speed urgently needed breakthroughs for millions of people with Parkinson’s,” he added.

Professor Phillip Powell, Executive Dean of the Department of Business, Economics and Informatics, said he was pleased the MJFF recognised the likely global impact of Professor Roussos’s work.

He said: “As life expectancy improves, the World Health Organisation expects a growth of population over the age of 60 years in developing countries and therefore an increase in PD prevalence, which will require cost-effective diagnosis and treatment solutions. 

“I am pleased to congratulate Professor George Roussos on his research in this area, providing patients and clinicians with regular, reliable assessments of the disease enabling earlier intervention and personalised treatment plans,” he added.

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