IBM forms partnership with Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's research

The two organizations hope to build a model that can predict the onset and progression of Parkinson's disease.

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By Shamard Charles, M.D.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation — the nation’s largest for Parkinson’s research — and IBM have created a partnership to develop technology aimed at better tracking the onset and progression of Parkinson’s disease.

The foundation will provide grants and a vast amount of longitudinal data from its Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative, an global observational clinical study, to IBM, the company announced Tuesday. In return, IBM will develop artificial intelligence technologies that the partners hope will provide a more comprehensive look at the disease and how it progresses.

“We are bringing together the advantages of both organizations," said Jianying Hu, program director of the Center for Computational Health at IBM. "This partnership will help us to build a disease progression model that will support our understanding of the disease, its progression, and how to improve the drug discovery process.”

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The collaboration is expected to provide deep insights into Parkinson’s disease and its progression.

Approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year, and the Parkinson’s Foundation estimates that nearly one million people will be living with the disease by 2020. A neurological disorder, Parkinson's usually begins with hand tremors and leads to shaking, rigidity and dementia. There is no cure.

The partnership — which is initially for one year — aims to create a disease progression model, which researchers hope will be validated by clinical experts.

Disease progression models help researchers understand how diseases start, characteristics of their different stages, how quickly they progress from asymptomatic to symptomatic disease, and factors that influence their progression. Creating and understanding these models is important to forming patient-specific treatment plans.

Hu said she believes that locating unique subgroups of patients will enable clinicians to transform care as they learn how the disease develops in each individual. She said she hopes that these insights lead to more targeted medication and research trials for patients.

“It’s really important because Parkinson’s disease is very difficult to manage," Hu told NBC News. "The disease affects a large amount of people and that number is increasing, so there is a strong need for technology, specifically machine-learning technology that can help us develop a domain that understands this rich data provided to us by the Michael J. Fox Foundation."