By Julie Dodd, Director of Digital Transformation and Communication, Parkinson’s UK

Published: 21 May 2018

Today the Prime Minister gave a speech that asks the NHS, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) sector and health charities to work together to use data and AI to transform the lives of those with chronic diseases.

I've been a critic in the past about the lack of technology nous among parliamentarians. So much of both the media and ministerial narrative on technology is ill-informed at best, and active fear-mongering at worst. It leaves little space to debate and demonstrate the transformative potential we see in applying these technologies in healthcare. This week’s announcement is a welcome surprise.

What could it mean for a progressive degenerative brain disorder like Parkinson’s?

The Prime Minister’s speech particularly focused on AI for early diagnosis, an area that could certainly help us tackle a condition like Parkinson's, but this is not the whole picture. For Parkinson’s, an early diagnosis alone won’t do much to alter the course and progression of the condition, but there are bigger implications for using this kind of AI technology in chronic disease.

The condition currently affects 145,000 people in the UK, but that figure is predicted to double over the next 50 years as life expectancy increases. There is currently no cure, and few major advances have been made in the past five decades. The chances of the NHS and charity services being able to keep up are very low, unless we make a major breakthrough. That means we need to prioritise new approaches right now.

At Parkinson’s UK we’ve recently embarked on a major partnership with BenevolentAI, one of Europe’s largest private AI companies. Through this partnership, our charity is using BenevolentAI’s world leading knowledge graph of medical literature to conduct break-through research into treating Parkinson’s.

Along with partner Cure Parkinson’s Trust we are leveraging the BenevolentAI platform’s capabilities to reason, deduce and suggest entirely new treatments. We’re aiming to identify:

  • at least three currently available medicines that can be repurposed to address Parkinson’s - beneficial because these medicines have already been through a high level of human safety testing and can therefore move much more swiftly to market
  • two brand-new ways to treat the disease.

If this AI partnership is successful, it will mark a significant advance in the number of drug options available for further investigation, and a major boost for people living with Parkinson’s now. To achieve the equivalent aims through traditional clinical research practice - even using our pioneering Virtual Biotech approach - could take years.

With a changing government narrative on the role of technology in healthcare, it feels like now could also be the time to unmask some other remarkable technology-fuelled breakthroughs bringing hope to many - from prescribing wearables and apps that provide symptomatic relief, through to smart home technology that could let those with advancing chronic conditions live independently at home for longer.

And for those in our sector who are still thinking about AI as “the future", it’s time to wake up. Whether it be for diagnosis, symptomatic relief, or curative treatments, AI and other technologies offer new hope that we can’t afford to ignore.

The BenevolentAI partnership was made possible through a competition run by the AMRC. We’re hugely grateful to the AMRC for this award, and for championing this vital area of scientific advancement on behalf of our sector.