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Federal award establishes Parkinson’s research center at URMC

Oct 4, 2018

The University of Rochester Medical Center has received a multimillion-dollar federal grant to study Parkinson’s disease, the university announced Wednesday. The $9.2 million award will fund the creation of a new research center, officials said.

“We are currently in the midst of a Parkinson’s pandemic,” said Ray Dorsey, the principal investigator of the new center. “The number of people with Parkinson’s disease globally has doubled from 1990 to 2015, and absent change, the number of people with Parkinson’s disease will double again in the coming 25 years.”

Wearable accelerometers can track movement and give researchers information about the tremors that often come with Parkinson's disease.
Credit University of Rochester Medical Center

Dorsey said current research is outdated and the most effective drugs to treat Parkinson’s currently on the market do not take into account new developments in technology.

Some of the research at URMC’s new center will focus on using smartphones to gauge the progress of Parkinson’s disease and the effectiveness of treatments. Dorsey showed off one such test in a conference room in the university’s Saunders Research Building, tapping repeatedly on two circles that showed up on his phone screen for 15 seconds.

The test, which patients can take in their own home, will allow researchers to track the disease’s effect on muscle tone without needing to see them in a clinic.

“Not only can the number of taps differentiate those with Parkinson’s disease from those without, but you can look at the rhythmicity of the tap, the inter-tap interval, the accuracy of the tap in the left circle, and the accuracy of the tap in the right circle,” among a dozen other variables, Dorsey said.

These remote tests can bring researchers means better data and more accurate assessments, Dorsey said.

“In the best of circumstances, you might see a doctor four times over the course of a year if you have Parkinson’s disease. But the 99.9 percent of the time you’re not with a doctor, we have little idea of how you’re doing.”

Ray Dorsey is studying how wearable technology can help researchers understand Parkinson's disease at URMC.
Credit Brett Dahlberg / WXXI News

Other research at the new center will aim to better predict the progression of Parkinson’s and investigate rare forms of the disease.

URMC will also partner with other academic institutions like MIT, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan, spokesperson Mark Michaud said.

Because of the volume of data expected to be generated from these experiments, Dorsey said, the center will involve URMC faculty disciplines beyond neurology, including biostatistics and computer science. The new research center “represents the novel convergence of medicine and data science,” said Ehsan Hoque, an assistant professor with the university’s institute for data science.

Dorsey said the center’s data will help determine which Parkinson’s treatments work, and which don’t. “Without good measures you can’t tell whether something’s working or not,” he said, likening the current state of research into Parkinson’s disease treatments to sending children to school without ever giving them a test to see if they’re learning. “Right now we have really high failure rates in clinical trials, and those are costly to pharmaceutical companies and costly to us, the public.”