Microsoft and Novartis are joining forces against multiple sclerosis (MS), the autoimmune disease that affects millions of people worldwide.
Using Microsoft’s Kinect, they have developed a tool called Assess MS that can monitor and evaluate a patient’s movements to determine if the disease is progressing or not—quantifying a patient’s status has been a top challenge with MS.
When Microsoft released the Kinect system for playing Xbox video games about five years ago, little did it know it would be parenting with a healthcare company. For years, Novartis has been trying to find more consistent ways to quantify whether the treatments it is developing for multiple sclerosis are working, but assessing whether a patient’s symptoms are stabilizing or getting worse is complicated.
The possibility of using computer vision—the technology found in the Kinect system—was intriguing. Using a tool like the Kinect, the researchers at Novartis aim to get a more consistent reading of how a patient performed on a set of standardized tests for MS patients, bringing a new level of uniformity that would help doctors better assess the progress of the disease. That, in turn, could speed up the process of getting the right treatments to patients.
Assess MS uses the Kinect motion camera and machine learning software to track physical movements and repeat the same tests months apart. Neurology experts scored video clips to teach the software algorithm how to recognize degrees of impairment.
“Patients often see different doctors each time they are assessed,” said Cecily Morrison, a Microsoft researcher at the Human Experience & Design research group in Cambridge, UK, reports Bloomberg. “And the question is—did I change or was there a change in the way the doctor scores it?”
Imprecise measurements also effect new drug trials and raise costs for pharmaceutical companies like Novartis.
“The beauty of computers is they don’t get tired, can be used in different settings and use the same criteria—unlike neurologists,” said Paul Matthews, head of the brain sciences division at London’s Imperial College, in Bloomberg.
The end goal is not to replace doctors. “You want to bolster the expert,” said Abigail Sellen, a principal researcher in the Human Experience and Design group at Microsoft’s Cambridge lab, in Phys.org. “What we’re doing is giving them a set of data that they can then weave into their judgment.”
“Novartis is leveraging digital technologies to transform patient care and drug development,” said Vas Narasimhan, global head of development at Novartis Pharmaceuticals. “We are excited about our collaboration with Microsoft Research to develop Assess MS, a more consistent way to measure motor dysfunctions caused by multiple sclerosis, which could lead to the development of better therapies and care for patients.”
The partnership of technology and medicine offers new hope. “One of the scariest things about MS is the unknown,” added Morrison. “And measurement is one way to help.”