A 200 Year Old Mystery.
A chronic neurological disease characterized by movement disorders.
A complex medical condition with unknown origins and a wide variety of symptoms dependant on the individual.
What is Parkinson’s Disease?
(camera pans out to Alex Trebek and the Jeopardy game set)
“Yes! That is correct! That is the question we were looking for!” declares host Alex Trebek. “And now, for perhaps our biggest challenge to date, what pray tell, might be the cure for Parkinson’s? Or, perhaps at the very least, the next breakthrough in treatment for this horrible condition. Let’s meet our new contestant….”
Suspenseful music builds. Drama ensues. Who will be revealed as the next Jeopardy contestant?
“We’ll be right back after these commercial messages”…
Interesting news coming out of Toronto and the Toronto Western Hospital (TWH) Movement Disorders Clinic (where I happen to be a patient).
Those of you who follow the popular game show Jeopardy in the U.S. will know that a few years ago, IBM built a computer to understand answers on Jeopardy and come up with the right questions. They gave this new “contestant” the moniker of Watson (think Sherlock Holmes’ “Elementary, my dear Watson”!). Since his appearance on the game show in 2011, IBM has expanded Watson’s talents, building on the algorithms that allow him to read and derive meaning from natural language. The computer system can pore through documents millions of times faster than any human. Among other functions, IBM adapted Watson for use in medicine.
TWH is the first hospital in Canada to use Watson for research in Parkinson’s. The centre has a track record of running clinical trials for off-label drug use, which means taking a drug approved for treatment of one condition and repurposing it for another. Researchers here believe Watson can help them speed up this process to find a cure for Parkinson’s.
This all began about a year ago when one of the patients at TWH, Jonathan Rezek, a 56-year-old IBM executive, pitched the idea during an examination with his doctor at the centre. As he noted, “Parkinson’s is a really slow moving disease. It’s hard to do research on it. So anything you can do to make research go faster is a positive.”
Rezek’s story, and the interesting trail that led to this unique deployment of Watson’s abilities, have been told in a April 15 2017 Toronto Star feature article Can Watson, the Jeopardy champion, solve Parkinson’s?. The article tracks the early development of Watson over 10 years ago as somewhat of a game-show novelty cum corporate data management promotional tool to an important medical research tool. Watson has, it is noted, ” the potential to manage the exploding increase in digital information, including electronic patient records and the thousands of scientific studies published every day.”
Here’s a brief excerpt on how Watson is being deployed in Toronto to tackle PD:
…(Watson) doesn’t know what to look for on its own. Doctors and scientists have to “train” Watson. In this instance, he was tasked with reading more than 20 million summaries of scientific studies that were available free online…researchers trained him to look for any mention of alpha-synuclein, a common brain protein that clumps together in Parkinson’s patients, an action that scientists think causes the disease. Watson then looked in the same text for a mention of an approved drug in Ontario.
“It really is the most simplistic strategy,” says Tom Mikkelsen, president and scientific director of the Ontari Brain Institute. “What it is looking for is the statistical nearness of the words.”Watson ranked the list of 52 drugs from best to worst… 21 of the drugs are worthy of further study, and of those, 16 had never been linked to Parkinson’s before. “I was asked the question one time, how would you approach this same problem that you’ve posed to Watson without Watson,” says (researcher) Visanji. “And the answer is we wouldn’t have. We couldn’t have physically done it.”
It’s a shortcut that could shave years off approval of a new drug to treat the disease, a process that typically takes at least a decade and costs millions of dollars. Typically, one in 10,000 drugs studied in the lab will make it to a clinical trial, a drop-off that scientists call the Valley of Death. “If there’s something out there that’s already gone through its toxicology testing; that’s gone into humans; that’s completely safe … then bingo,” says Visanji. “Why would you look for something else?”…
The next step for the team at Toronto Western, if they can find another $300,000 in funding, is to take Watson’s list of drugs and narrow the search even further. Scientists can look at patient data in Ontario to see if the incidence of Parkinson’s is lower in people on any of the 52 drugs, which could mean the drug is beneficial in some way. They’ll also test the best 20 or so candidates in the lab to see what effects they have on alpha-synuclein aggregation. The best candidate will be chosen for the off-label clinical trial. “You could get a clinical trial up and running in six months after we’ve picked the best candidate,” says Visanji. “I see this as something that could happen. It’s a reality. I really hope it does come from this. “And if it does, the short cut is insane.”
Crazy, eh?! Exciting stuff happening here! Cue the music…back to you Alex! Time to introduce our next contestant! All the way from Toronto, Ontario, Canada – Watson!! (Author’s note: I hope this is the right link…I’m still struggling with this new technology!) Click here and play!