A New Approach To Parkinson’s Disease: How Robotics Can Help

Developing wearable devices that help Parkinson’s patients

There are many insidious diseases that debilitate people, but one of the worst is Parkinson’s. Its level of importance has been highlighted by celebrities including Michael J. Fox and Mohammed Ali, who recently died from complications from the disease. About 60,000 people a year are afflicted with Parkinson’s, and an estimated 7 million to 10 million people around the globe are living with it. Alfredo Muniz and Sade Oba are seniors at the University of Pennsylvania who hope their research in robotics will help improve the quality of life for those living with the disease. They are looking at the effectiveness of using motion sensors to gather data and have founded a company called Xeed. They recently spoke with the [email protected] Show on Sirius XM channel 111 about their work and how it can be applied.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

[email protected]: Where did the idea come from to gather data on Parkinson’s disease?

Alfredo Muniz: It actually came from a robot. We’re both also roboticists master’s students here at Penn, and it actually started from a robot that could do anything. As amazing as that sounds, no one wanted to buy it. You could think of it as a mobile Amazon Echo. After a good half a year or so of trying to commercialize it, we realized that it wasn’t going to happen. No one wanted this amazing robot because the Amazon Echo was already out.

So we took some sensors in the robot and used them for a different purpose. After talking to a couple of people, we realized that [the sensors] could really track fine motor movement very well. After just a very quick conversation with a physical therapist, we focused in on movement disorders and then focused in even more on Parkinson’s disease. This community is really, really hungry for a new way of tracking the disease, and that’s where we hope that our company comes into play.

[email protected]: You had this idea of using a trackable, wearing device. What’s the next step in the process?

Muniz: During our studies with robotics, we realized that if you have a robotic arm, you can make it do anything. The idea is nothing new. People have tried to make human robotic arms. We’re just using the same principles, but without the hardware. So this is actually the tracking part. Now we have prototypes, so we have an order coming in from China that’s about 100 different sensors and we’re going to beta test them with our communities here in Philadelphia.

“This community is really, really hungry for a new way of tracking the disease, and that’s where we hope that our company comes into play.”

[email protected]: How quick of a process has this been?

Sade Oba: It was fairly quick. We’ve been working on this for a little over a year, but the transition from a robot to an actual wearable was about a two-month process. It was a realization of, “OK, we need to use only a few sensors, we need to make a wearable, let’s go.” Fortunately, we had had enough experience in our past internships doing product design or bio-wearables to be able to come up with a really quick prototype and iteration to start presenting to people.

[email protected]: You mentioned talking with a physical therapist. I’m guessing that you’re getting more interest these days from the medical community?

Oba: Yes. We formed a new partnership with Dr. Alice Chen-Plotkin, assistant professor of neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine at UPenn, who has a small group of 250 Parkinson’s patients who will be able to test our devices, which is great. We’ll get a lot of good feedback.

[email protected]: What is it that doctors hope they will be able to gather from tracking all that motion?

Muniz: She’s really interested in the effectiveness of medication and the kind of treatments that she has. She has space at the Penn Tower, and she wants us to participate in this kind of trial where she’ll bring in different patients and have them wear the device. These rooms are videotaped. The patients will be there for a couple hours each day, and we’ll basically monitor them. The doctor will say, “Is the drug working? Are you dyskinetic? Is the drug off? Do you need to take medication now?” We’ll be tracking that with the data from the wearables. With that and a little bit of machine learning, we’ll be able to hopefully map that to even more people.

[email protected]: The hope is the doctors will be able to understand the effectiveness of the medication and whether some patients don’t require the medication as much as others, correct?

Oba: Yes. For the patients themselves, many have the question of, “OK, am I meeting tomorrow at 2 p.m. with the other board members of my company? Am I going to be showing signs of having Parkinson’s? How do I prevent that from happening? When do I need to take my medication to prevent that from happening?” You would think that it’s exactly two hours beforehand, for example. But that’s not the case for each and every person. Our company aims to have a personalized care for those with Parkinson’s disease.

Muniz: We’re currently in the manufacturing stage — not mass manufacturing, but just small prototypes. We made our first prototype over a year ago, and it was this really gigantic white box. Basically, a bunch of off-the-shelf components. Then we made it smaller with a batch of 15 of those. We discovered some problems with it. Now, we’re on a third version that we are calling “mark three” that we want to give to patients and have them try out.

[email protected]: When people think about a wearable device, they think of a Fitbit or something along that line. Is the ultimate goal to pare the size down to something that is similar to that?

Oba: It actually is quite a few millimeters smaller than a Fitbit right now — that’s where our mark two is at. The one that we’re currently designing is going to be even thinner. We don’t have to worry about it being bulky. You’re not going to attract attention. Ultimately, what our patients want is to be able to track their disease without other people tracking them.

[email protected]: Do either of you have a family member who was afflicted by Parkinson’s?

Oba: No, we don’t have a personal family member, but we did have a mentor through our years in college, who would like to remain anonymous, who does have Parkinson’s. It was after working with this individual for years that we realized that [sufferers of this disease could use] some extra assistance from a wearable device such as ours.

Muniz: Even though we have all this technology, there’s still a lot that we don’t know about Parkinson’s, and it’s because they don’t have the tools necessary to objectively quantify what’s going on.

[email protected]: Sade, you mentioned a CEO who may be battling Parkinson’s and doesn’t want to show outwardly. We’re talking about a disease that has a stigma attached to it.

Oba:  Yes. One of the focus points of our company is, “How do we provide this service that

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