Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Novartis (NYSE:NVS) partnered to develop a system that would precisely measure the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. The system could potentially allow the development of better, cheaper and faster treatments for patients.
The researchers of Microsoft and Novartis are working on a project called Assess MS. The project utilizes the tech giant’s Kinect motion camera, machine learning software to track movements to analyze a patient’s movement from a step to his/her ability to touch one’s nose with a finger.
Novartis has been trying to find a more consistent ways to evaluate whether the treatments it is developing for the multiple sclerosis are effective. However, it is complicated and difficult to assess whether the patient’s symptoms are getting worse of improving.
Cecily Morrison, a researcher in Microsoft’s Cambridge, UK, research lab, said uncertainty is one of the most difficult things about multiple sclerosis. She spent the last two years working on the Assess MS project, which was developed out Novartis’ idea.
About multiple sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable and incurable disease of the central nervous system, which comprises the bran, spinal cord and optic nerves. The disease affects 2.3 million people worldwide.
Multiple Sclerosis is a complicated disease as it may cause many symptoms including blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, slurred speech, tremors, numbness and pain. It also causes extreme fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, paralysis, blindness and more.
The disease happens when the immune system produces inflammation within the central nervous system. The inflammation damages myelin, a fatty substance that protects nerve fibers. The damage produces symptoms that could be resolved for weeks to months or symptoms that are permanent.
Multiple sclerosis is unpredictable because some patients died within a few years and many others suffer from physical deterioration for several decades. Most patients have relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis as the symptoms become severe and then improve. Because of this, it is very important for doctors to have the ability to track the severity of the disease over a period.
Evaluating the changes in the symptoms of patients suffering from the disease is challenging for doctors who typically use a series of physical movement tests, which are repeated during the next appointment of a patient, months later.
According to Morrison, “Neurologists are very good at understanding what patients need and finding the right treatments for them, but what they are not very good at is being consistent in the way they quantify symptoms.”
She added, “Patients often see different doctors each time they are assessed and the question is—did I change or was there a change in the way the doctor scores it?”
Novartis approached Microsoft to use the Kinect system
The researchers at Novartis believed they could get a more consistent reading of how a patient performed on each of the tests using a tool like the Kinect. The tool provides a new level of uniformity that would help doctors better assess the progress of the disease and accelerate the process of developing the right treatments for patients.
The researchers; objective was not to replace doctors, but to augment their knowledge of the disease with a more consistent assessment of the symptoms. It is similar to an ophthalmologist measuring the declining eyesight of a patient.
“What you don’t want to do with these systems is replace the expert. You want to bolster the expert. What we’re doing is giving them a set of data that they can then weave into their judgment,” said Abigail Sellen, a principal researcher, Human Experience and Design group at Microsoft’s Cambridge, UK, lab.
Microsoft is working with three of the top multi sclerosis clinics in Europe to test patients by setting up a system. The tech giant mounts a Kinect motion-sensing camera on a screen and asks patients to do things such as extend their arms and hold still or touch their extended hand to the tip of their nose, and repeat with eyes closed. The motion-sensing camera collects precise date on the patient’s movement—indicating the degree of impairment.
Several neurology experts in multiple sclerosis help Microsoft score the video clips to teach the algorithm of the software in recognizing the level of impairment. The software already analyzed 150 to 300 videos for each movement. The tech giant completed the first phase of the Assess MS project in December.
This year, Microsoft and Novartis will expand the study to five new clinics and hospitals to obtain more patient videos to perfect the algorithm.
Antonio Criminisi, a researcher at Microsoft, said, “We are approaching parity with humans on accuracy, but perhaps better than humans with consistency. But before feeling confident that this really works all the time, we need to be able to look at many more patients.”