An app co-developed by URMC researchers was unveiled on March 9 at an Apple keynote event. The app, dubbed mPower, is designed to collect real-time data from those suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The study is expected to gather data from tens of thousands of users and illuminate otherwise unexplored facets of Parkinson’s disease, unobtainable through traditional sampling.

According to study spokesperson Mark Michaud, the idea started with a technology developed by Max Little, Ph.D., of Aston University in the UK. The technology “can detect variations in recordings of a person’s voice,” said Michaud, and can thus reveal the severity of their Parkinson’s symptoms. Little is currently a collaborator on the study, along with URMC’s Dr. Ray Dorsey and Dr. Karl Keiburtz.

Little’s technology was first used in a study spearheaded by URMC entitled “The Parkinson’s Voice Initiative.” Seattle-based non-profit research organization Sage Bionetworks “built upon this concept to develop the mPower app,” Michaud said. The study is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The app in its current form maintains the capability to detect voice variations. It will also be able to measure mobility and balance through the use of the device’s accelerometer, as well as measuring dexterity by testing how fast a user can tap the phone’s screen. These data, which the app’s designers expect will be collected from more than 20,000 users, will be aggregated as part of a longitudinal study conducted by Sage Bionetworks.

Additionally, the app boasts the capability to reveal real-time health information and feedback to its users. According to Michaud, the app will simply collect data from its users and will not recommend care or diagnose symptoms, which would require FDA approval.

“It is not hard to imagine that in the near future,” he added, “disease monitoring apps like this could be developed and used to supplement the care provided by a physician.”

The app is designed to collect data from users several times per day. Since symptoms of Parkinson’s can vary throughout the day, this approach most effectively captures reliable data from its users. Variations could potentially arise in data collected before and after taking medication or exercising.

The free application is available exclusively through the iPhone’s App Store. Likewise, the software was created by Sage Bionetworks using Apple’s research application development tool, ResearchKit. The mPower app was unveiled along with four others at the time of the keynote event, each designed to track symptoms of breast cancer, asthma, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

In light of the 22,000 users garnered by the app designed to track symptoms of cardiovascular disease, the outlook is good for the mPower app. Sage Bionetworks is working jointly with organizations dedicated to studying Parkinson’s, such as the Michael J. Fox Foundation, to gain a large user base.

The decision to design an app for the study of Parkinson’s is timely. Mobile technologies are increasingly prevalent in research, according to Michaud. “The Parkinson’s Voice Initiative … is an example, as is a project being developed by [UR] Professor Henry Kautz to help track Ebola in Africa,” Michaud said. “Employing mobile technologies to study diseases are an important part of the future of medicine.”

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