The long game
Ideally, of course, Visanji and her colleagues would like to find a cure for Parkinson’s. And they are also working with Watson to try and get at the root cause of the disease.
Researchers know that clumps of the protein alpha-synuclein are present in the brains of Parkinson’s patients. A second study asked Watson to predict drugs that might prevent those protein clumps.
Watson generated a ranked list of drugs that might be effective, and Visanji says those will be tested in the lab, but “the caveat is how long is it going to take to get into a clinical trial, and how long are those trials going to take? One of the reasons there isn’t a cure for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s is those experiments are so much more complex and they take a very long time. Proving that a drug has an impact might take years and years, and it’s challenging to find someone to fund that.”
“That’s really the long game,” she adds. “I see what we have done to date with the dyskinesia project as something that could realistically impact and improve patient quality of life in a matter of three or four years. It’s not the solution, but it’s something that can help until we do have a cure.”
The patient as muse
Visanji adds that Rezek himself has been hugely motivational for her team. “You can’t undervalue the patient experience, and the courage it took for Jonathan to come forward with this idea, and everything he’s done in the last 18 months to drive this project.”
“He is a force of nature,” agrees Lacoste. “Without Jonathan there would be no project. He’s determined, and I’m grateful to him for persisting with this. I hope it will make a difference in his life.”
“This is my passion project,” says Rezek. “There are a lot of neurodegenerative diseases that are similar — Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS. I’d like nothing better than for IBM to build a Watson that helps solve neurodegenerative disease.”
Rezek devotes as much energy as he can spare to fundraising efforts to support the necessary lab validation studies and clinical trials. “What I don't think is often recognized is that even with Watson identifying potential drugs that can be repurposed, the basic research has to continue. You have to do the testing, in a petri dish, in animal studies, in clinical trials. It’s expensive.
“It’s easy to get demoralized, but I’ve met some incredible people who all want to help. For me, it’s a tug of war between optimism and fear. Optimism is fine. Guarded optimism is better.”