Clear skies ahead

Innovative technology created by York academics could improve the lives of Parkinson’s sufferers

Co-founder and director of ClearSky Medical Diagnostics, Dr Stephen Smith tells YuMag about the new technology helping to monitor and diagnose Parkinson’s disease.

ClearSky Medical Diagnostics is a university spinout company from the Department of Electronics that has developed a number of devices for the diagnosis and monitoring of Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative conditions.

The technology that forms the basis of these devices derives from unique biologically inspired evolutionary computer algorithms developed by co-founder and director Dr Stephen Smith, and academics in the Department of Electronics over the past ten years.

ClearSky Medical Diagnostics, Dr Stephen Smith tells us about the new technology

The research has been commercialised through the company ClearSky Medical Diagnostics, with leading product, LID-Monitor, now installed in hospitals in the UK and China. Another product, a PD-Monitor, has recently become available on the market.

Research has been carried out in collaboration with medical specialists from Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, particularly at Leeds General Infirmary, who have helped to ensure that the work is clinically-led. Clearsky’s range of four products have the ability to both detect and monitor Parkinson’s disease in patients. Leading product LID-Monitor measures the side effects of medication prescribed to patients already diagnosed with Parkinson’s while the other three are designed to assist diagnosis of neurodegenerative conditions.

Misdiagnosis of neurodegenerative conditions, Dr. Smith explains, is due to the confusing nature of the symptoms early on: “one of biggest problems is that in early months the symptoms can be very confusing, making it difficult for doctors to determine whether you have Parkinson’s or some other type of condition.”

In the field of medical research, it is widely accepted that 25% of all diagnoses of neurodegenerative conditions are unsound. This is a statistic that ClearSky’s revolutionary technology aims to tackle by providing more accurate diagnoses of Parkinson’s and conditions such as Huntington’s and Supranuclear Palsy.

Dr. Smith is confident that his products’ technology will have “huge implications for early diagnosis and for getting the correct medication.”

How does it work?

The evolutionary algorithms developed by intensive research, Dr. Smith explains, “are able to take data from our four products, which comprise of a wide range of sensors, data gloves, movement sensors, tracking sensors and a digitising tablet that patients can draw on.”

“What we’re really doing is measuring the patient’s movements, and once we measure these movements in real time, we can then analyse them with our computer algorithms.”

What makes these algorithms so special is that they are revolutionary algorithms, which Dr. Smith tells me, is because “rather than being told what to detect, they’re actually trained on, or they learn the differences between, those movements that you’ll see with somebody in Parkinson’s and those movements for somebody who doesn’t have Parkinson’s.”

To give an example, in the simple grasp task, “a person with Parkinson’s would reach and grasp the cylinder in a different way to say somebody with Huntington’s disease or Dystonia.”

Collected through patient interaction with ClearSky’s devices, these imperceptible differences in movement are detected and processed by the evolutionary algorithms, which have been trained to recognise them.

“That’s the real key, that the algorithm is evolved or learns the imperceptible differences between the movements, which you and I wouldn’t be able to see with the human eye.”

These movements, likely subtle hesitations or delays associated with each neurodegenerative condition, are a key indicator in diagnosing which neurological condition a patient may or not have.

Endless benefits

A large benefit of ClearSky’s technology is the ease of testing. The products are safe and easy to use; the lead product, LID-Monitor can measure patients’ movements while they are at home.

Providing such technologies to patients in their own home is more important than ever in a climate of NHS budget cuts; patients can be assessed and monitored without needing to making a trip to the hospital.

Perhaps most importantly, employment of these products in hospitals has the potential to reduce costs in the diagnosis of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and a range of other neurodegenerative diseases.

Dr. Smith believes that the LED-Monitor could also help to tackle the huge costs of hospital admissions of Parkinson’s sufferers due to falling as a result of side effects of their medication.

“Hospital admission is costing the NHS £180 million per year, which is 85% of the total budget for caring for people with Parkinson’s,” he explains.

“Health economic assessment we’ve undertaken has shown that introducing the first product, the LED-Monitor, will save the NHS about half the cost of managing patients with dyskinesia as well.”

With information about a patient’s movement detected from the device, ClearSky’s evolutionary algorithms can determine how severely side effects from medication occur and how they occur in relation to the patient’s prescribed medication. Doctors can use this information to readjust a patient’s medication, leading to better management of side effects and improvement of the day-to-day quality of life for sufferers of these diseases.

Looking for investment

While two of the four products have already made their way onto the market, the company is looking for investment in order to develop the tests for other conditions as well as Parkinson’s and to exploit their potential for other markets and a global consumer audience. A large focus also remains on delivering the product to the NHS.
“We are at a very exciting stage where we have two products ready to sell but we’re also looking for investment so we can scale up our marketing activities, most of all to be able to penetrate the NHS market in the UK, which is very difficult.”

ClearSky is also looking to introduce the products into the private sector and has received a lot of interest from nursing homes, private individuals, insurance companies, and also pharmaceutical companies interested in using the devices to undertake objective assessments.

Setting a good example

The company has its roots firmly in the university and has offered two students in the Department of Physics summer internships this year to be involved in its progression. Dr. Smith is keen to promote ClearSky’s success to undergraduates at the University as a good example of research that can make a real difference to people’s lives.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last ten years; seeing pure academic work commercialised into the real world where, most importantly, we can actually see it make a difference to patients’ lives.”