Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is the fastest-growing neurodegenerative condition in the world, second only to Alzheimer’s, and affects 600,000 Americans every year at a cost of $20 billion to the U.S. healthcare system. PD’s symptoms and signs can vary dramatically between patients, and as a result, there is no one standard test or biomarker that can diagnose or track the progression of the disease. When a doctor examines a patient with PD, they assess the presence of three neurological signs: slowed movements (bradykinesia), tremor and muscle rigidity (stiffness) — the presence of at least two of the three is required for a positive diagnosis. These examinations are subjective and imprecise, making it challenging to diagnose and monitor the disease, especially in the early stages when symptoms are mild.
Several commercial products have emerged over the past two decades attempting to meet the need for objective PD symptom detection and monitoring, but most of these products depend on inertial measurement technologies (the kind used in smartphones to detect their orientation) to detect the movement of an individual. These systems can monitor bradykinesia and tremor but not muscle rigidity, which is present in more than 90 percent of patients with PD.
Members of the Harvard Biodesign and Microrobotics labs, led by Wyss Associate Faculty members Conor Walsh, Ph.D. and Rob Wood, Ph.D., are developing a clothing-based system with integrated novel wearable strain sensor technology to accurately detect and monitor muscle rigidity in patients with Parkinson’s Disease in real-time, and eventually all three primary neurological signs of the disease.
The soft wearable system is “muscle-centric” compared to the inertia-based sensor systems currently on the market and is designed to be comfortable enough to be worn by a patient all day. The sensors detect distinct physiological patterns in the patient’s muscles multiple times throughout the day, which can produce much more information about a patient’s condition than the current clinical paradigm of a brief check-up a few times a year. This will allow healthcare providers to more effectively manage the disease and make adjustments to treatment. It could also potentially help detect the disease much earlier.
The device can be used without the assistance of a medical specialist, enabling a telehealth approach to treatment and reducing the cost to healthcare payers and providers. The system is also wellpoised for use in both traditional and virtual clinical trials, as it could provide objective and reliable indicators of whether a drug candidate is improving symptoms. Many new and better therapies could reach the market as a result, and our system could one day even play a role in the effort to find a cure for PD.
Led by Seun Araromi, PhD, a former postdoctoral fellow who is now a research associate in materials science and mechanical engineering at the Wyss Institute and Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), a team of researchers in the labs of Wyss associate faculty members Conor Walsh, PhD, and Rob Wood, PhD, collaborated to create a soft, durable, fabric-based sensor. Conversations with the Wyss Institute’s business development team helped the scientists identify Parkinson’s disease as a potential area where their sensor could have significant impact, as it is so sensitive that it could detect changes in the curvature of a muscle as it moves.
MyoExo was named a Wyss Institute Validation Project in 2021. The team quickly moved to involve patients with PD in their research, partnering with Terry Ellis, PhD, at Boston University to invite them into the lab to test multiple iterations of the device and provide feedback about its comfort and functionality.