Taking aim at Parkinson’s

May 25, 2016
Peter Bergethon, M.D., Vice President and Head of Quantitative Medicine, Pfizer

Growing up, I was surrounded by musicians, artists, and writers. I have always been intensely interested in people and the human creative expression in art. It fascinated me to learn how people think, to view what they create, and hear about how they created it. From teachers to preachers to artists, the people in my life have cultivated a deep appreciation for the creative process. But I wasn’t interested in creating art in the traditional sense – instead, I’ve applied that thirst for creativity to science and mathematics.

I entered medical school because I wanted to contribute to new discoveries that could help people. This passion for innovation and discovery is very personal because my family has a history of neurological disease. My father died of Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease affected members of my family. My career has been defined around ways to create new solutions that could improve the lives of people who suffer from these devastating diseases.

Every day, doctors review complex sets of information, analyze them, and develop an appropriate course of action in caring for patients. But when patients are suffering from degenerative neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s – a disease that more than 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with each year – clinical care requires extremely close monitoring and continual analysis. This level of care is necessary to ensure that a course of treatment is still optimal at any given time.

Parkinson’s disease in particular requires ongoing assessment and adjustment of a patient’s medication regimen, which is dependent on both the progression of the disease and response of the patient. Additionally, these types of neurological disorders can cause uncontrolled movements and impaired cognitive abilities, among a myriad of other debilitating symptoms. Monitoring these symptoms tends to be limited to direct observation by a clinician in a clinic, or the information a patient or their caregiver records in a diary.

Herein lies the tremendous potential for technology and connectivity to change how we care for these patients and improve neurological disease treatment – and do so in a way that does not disrupt patient lifestyles or confine them to a hospital.

Pfizer and IBM are working on ground-breaking research to change the way neurological diseases are treated with connected health technology, real-time data capture, and advanced data analysis.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has opened up a world of new possibilities for clinical research and disease treatment through remote monitoring. Using sensors, mobile devices, and advanced machine learning capabilities, researchers are looking for new ways to track and measure a host of valuable patient data – measuring everything from mobility to sleep patterns – all in real time.

“… what if motion sensors placed in the home could monitor changes in how a patient moves or the time it takes to tie a shoe?”

For example, what if motion sensors placed in the home could monitor changes in how a patient moves or the time it takes to tie a shoe? What if common wearables could track fine motor signals and spot tremors or changes in speech? What data from these technologies could enable clinicians and researchers to track the progression of a disease and the magnitude of symptoms, all without changing a patient’s daily lifestyle or routine? That’s what we are trying to find out through an important research project between Pfizer and IBM.

Armed with this level of real-time data, researchers and clinicians may finally be able to do more to improve patient care. New Parkinson’s discoveries may finally move beyond symptom improvement to potentially changing the course of the disease altogether. Doctors might get the insights they need to tailor treatment to each individual patient. And researchers would have the information they need to study a disease’s progression more closely and potentially speed the development of better, more targeted therapies.

To me, this is the ultimate creative process. Together, Pfizer and IBM are experimenting with new ways to tap the power of data and connected devices to create something entirely new, something that could ultimately lead to novel and better therapies, and something that could fundamentally change the way doctors approach patient care. The potential for technology and connectivity to redefine medicine has never been greater, and I believe the sky is the limit on what could come of the collaboration.