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Novartis and Microsoft team up for Kinect collab

Published on 08/03/16 at 10:49am

Novartis has partnered with technology giant Microsoft; hoping to use its Kinect motion sensor to quantify whether its multiple sclerosis treatments are proving effective.

Microsoft says the complexity of multiple sclerosis symptoms, and the way they differ substantially from patient to patient, creates challenges in assessing whether they are stable or exacerbating. Speed of progression is extremely variable and unpredictable.

“One of the most difficult things about MS is the uncertainty of it,” comments Cecily Morrison, a researcher in Microsoft’s Cambridge, UK, research lab, who has spent the last few years working on the research project borne out of Novartis’ idea, dubbed Assess MS.

Today’s standard method of quantifying MS progression involves doctors performing a series of tests: such as asking a patient to touch their nose or sit with their arms outstretched. Doctors then rate the patients’ symptoms according to a scale, based on how effectively they were able to do the tests.

However, the subjective nature of a human doctor’s opinion leaves room for error in diagnosis and a lack of standardisation in the test. Research has shown that different doctors have rated the same patient differently on the scale, and also that the same doctor can rate the same movement differently when seeing it on two separate occasions.

For this reason, the Kinect’s less fallible ‘computer vision’, as the technology is called, is seen as a way of getting a more consistent reading of how a patient performed on each of the tests, bringing a new level of uniformity that would help doctors better assess the progress of the disease. Novartis and Microsoft think this could in turn speed the process of getting the right drugs to patients.

According to Microsoft, the intention is to augment a doctor’s knowledge and ability to assess the disease, as opposed to replacing them altogether. “What we’re doing is giving them a set of data that they can then weave into their judgment,” explains Abigail Sellen, a principal researcher in the Human Experience and Design group at the Cambridge research lab.

Microsoft has been working on this project for several years, but Assess MS now has a reliable proof of concept that can be tested on a larger number of patients. The research team’s current goal is to fine tune the machine learning algorithms used in the system.

The project's aim is to use the computer vision found in the Kinect system to provide more consistent readings of patient symptoms and give doctors an additional tool. To do that the team has been working on new algorithms to transform the Kinect depth camera, increasing the sensitivity to make it more capable of detecting much subtler movements.

Vas Narasimhan, global head of development at Novartis Pharmaceuticals, says: “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.”

To assess its practical application Novartis and Microsoft involved a number of clinical partners, working with clinicians at University Hospital Basel, University Hospital Bern and VU University Medical Centre Amsterdam. Microsoft says the next step is to test Assess MS in practice and see if it can be used in clinical trials for MS and, potentially, other similar diseases.

Joel Levy

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