Microsoft & Novartis create MS Assess – a new Kinect-based assessment tool for Multiple Sclerosis
It’s been 5 years since Microsoft launched its Kinect system for Xbox and we’re increasingly seeing use cases for the device beyond just video games. The latest has formed a partnership between the tech giant and healthcare company Novartis. The team there had been trying for years to find more consistent ways to quantify whether the treatments it is developing for Multiple Sclerosis are working, but assessing whether a patient’s symptoms are stabilising or getting worse is complicated.
Multiple Sclerosis is always complicated to diagnose and assess in the first place, as in some patients symptoms might progress with heartbreaking speed, while in others they may show up slowly, erratically and over a period of many years. As Cecily Morrison, a researcher in Microsoft’s Cambridge, UK, research lab, who has spent the last few years working on the research project dubbed ‘Assess MS’: “One of the most difficult things about MS is the uncertainty of it.”
To try to quantify the progress of multiple sclerosis, doctors have developed a standard set of tests they perform, like asking a patient to touch their nose or sit with their arms outstretched. Doctors watch the patient and then use a rating scale to determine how strong the patient’s symptoms are.
The problem? Doctors are only human, and despite all their best efforts to standardize the MS test, in the end it is subjective. The researchers found that when a group of doctors are shown the same patient doing the same movement, some may interpret it as a “1” on the rating scale, while others will say it’s a “2.” Even when the same doctor is shown the same movement on two different days, that doctor may give that patient a different rating.
Abigail Sellen, a principal researcher in the Human Experience and Design group at Microsoft’s Cambridge, UK, lab, explains: “The clinicians that we worked with really care about their patients. They really want what’s best for them, and even the best neurologist will admit that when they use these rating scales, it’s pretty coarse-grained. They know that there’s a lot of variability, even in their own judgements, over time.”
That’s where the potential for computer vision through the Kinect system was realised. Using this device, the researchers at Novartis figured they could get a more consistent reading of how a patient performed on each of the tests, bringing a new level of uniformity that would help doctors better assess the progress of the disease. That, in turn, could speed up the process of getting the right treatments to patients.
The goal was not to replace the doctor but rather to augment the doctors’ knowledge of the disease with a more consistent measurement of the symptoms, in the same way that an ophthalmologist can measure a patient’s declining eyesight. Ultimately, the researchers hope that Novartis and other pharmaceutical companies can use Assess MS to speed up clinical trials for multiple sclerosis, and perhaps, eventually, for other, similar diseases as well.
You can find out more about MS Assess from the official announcement and video the team have put together about the project (below).