Dementia charity spearheads global initiative to use wearables to revolutionise disease detection
Alzheimer’s Research UK has launched a global initiative to revolutionise the early detection of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The project will harness and analyse a wealth of digital data to develop signatures of disease – or ‘fingerprints’ – that can be then detected using wearable technologies, such as smart watches.
Developing digital fingerprints that can be detected using phone apps or wearable technologies like smart watches would provide a low-cost approach to identifying those most at risk of disease
The collaboration aims to secure at least £67m over the first six years, with an ambition to attract up to £100m of total investment by 2030 to build and trial its diagnostic device on a large scale.
Initial funds towards the initiative have already been secured from Bill Gates and Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation, and Early Detection of Neurodegenerative diseases (EDoN) will now become a focus for the charity’s fundraising to secure the further support required.
The charity’s president, former UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, hosted an event to launch the EDoN initiative at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month.
Diseases like Alzheimer’s, the most-common form of dementia, start to develop in the brain up to two decades before symptoms begin to show.
And researchers worldwide now agree that future treatments and preventions will have greatest benefit when given as early as possible in the development of the disease.
With potential new treatments for early Alzheimer’s on the horizon, Alzheimer’s Research UK believes that now is a critical time to act to identify very-early brain changes in diseases like Alzheimer’s.
EDoN sees Alzheimer’s Research UK join forces with leading organisations in data science, clinical and neurodegenerative research to collect and analyse clinical and digital health data such as sleep, gait and speech patterns, to develop early digital fingerprints of diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Carol Routledge, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Our research shows that 85% of UK adults would be willing to take a test that could tell them if they were in the early stages of a disease like Alzheimer’s, even before symptoms show.
“EDoN aims to harness the growing popularity of digital health technology and big data to revolutionise how we develop early tests for these diseases.
Through technology and big data, I strongly believe we are on the cusp of a revolution in how we detect the brain diseases that cause dementia and radically improve the lives of the millions on families facing these heart-breaking diseases
“ Developing digital fingerprints that can be detected using phone apps or wearable technologies like smart watches would provide a low-cost approach to identifying those most at risk of disease.
“Identifying the very-earliest changes in these diseases would transform research efforts today, giving us the best chance of stopping these diseases before the symptoms of dementia start to get in the way of life.”
Professor Chris Holmes from the University of Oxford, and programme director for health at The Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence and an EDoN partner, added: “Artificial intelligence has the potential to transform the learning opportunities from large-scale data studies such as EDoN by integrating information from multiple sources, this being an area of strength at the Turing.
“We will use AI to deliver new insights into the early signals of disease by combining digital data measurements with traditional sources such as brain imaging and memory tests.
“More-accurate and timely detection will enable earlier enrolment for patients onto clinical trials and provide new scientific insight into the initial stages of diseases like Alzheimer’s.
“The UK is uniquely placed to undertake this work with its expertise in AI and the clinical sciences, coupled with an NHS that is critical to delivering patient benefit. We are delighted to be embarking on this partnership.”“
And Cameron said: “During my time as Prime Minister I witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of dementia on families and made a personal commitment to transform the pace of research efforts across the globe.
“Early and accurate diagnosis will give future treatments the head-start they need to succeed.
The UK is uniquely placed to undertake this work with its expertise in AI and the clinical sciences, coupled with an NHS that is critical to delivering patient benefit
“EDoN brings together those at the forefront of this early diagnosis movement.
“Through technology and big data, I strongly believe we are on the cusp of a revolution in how we detect the brain diseases that cause dementia and radically improve the lives of the millions on families facing these heart-breaking diseases.”
In December 2018, the UK Government committed £79m through the Life Sciences Sector Deal 2 to create the Accelerating Detection of Disease cohort, a group of up to five million people to act as a testbed for data-driven discovery.
As a partner on that project, Alzheimer’s Research UK plans to use the cohort to validate technologies emerging from EDoN on a scale that’s not been possible before.
Minister for Care, Caroline Dinenage, said: “We want to make this the best country in the world to live well with dementia and early detection and diagnosis is a huge step toward improving the lives of those with the condition.
“Harnessing cutting-edge technology to spot the early signs of dementia can be used to transform research to improve outcomes and even one day, stop this disease in its tracks.
“This is an incredibly-exciting initiative which has the potential to bring together global partners to transform how we treat dementia as well as to live well with it.”
The news has also been welcomed by technology companies.
But Mark Frankish, data scientist at SAS UK & Ireland, told BBH attitudes would need to change to ensure the technology is used properly.
He added: ““Connected devices will revolutionise healthcare.
“This new stream of lifestyle data offers huge potential to healthcare professionals when it comes to supporting decision making and improving patient outcomes.
“But healthcare providers must have a plan in place in order to avoid being buried in large volumes of data.
“The current data mentality in the NHS will need to shift if this new data is to be used to its optimal value.
“Every member of staff, from clinicians to administrators will need to understand and trust recommendations achieved via analytics and AI, and be able to explain these to patients.
“Only through cultural change can technology bring about the next era of patient care.”