The VCU Schools of medicine and engineering have been awarded a $1 million grant by The Michael J. Fox Foundation to further develop eye-movement diagnostic tools to test for Parkinson’s disease.
Biomedical engineering professor Paul Wetzel, the interim director of VCU Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Center Mark Baron and George Gitchel, assistant director at the Southeast/Richmond Veteran’s Affairs Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education and Clinical Center, began working together on the project.
“This will have an equally big impact locally,” Baron said. “It will be in many doctors’ offices in Richmond and well beyond Richmond, all over the state and even beyond the state.”
“The test is highly sensitive and can detect Parkinson’s disease and differentiate from other movement disorders,” Baron said. “It can pick up a diagnostic 10 to 20 years before showing the first symptom of Parkinson’s disease.”
Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder caused by the breakdown of nerve cells, resulting in less dopamine production. The disease is progressive, but with the help of the researchers’ eye-movement tools neurologists can begin treatment before symptoms start to show.
The team signed a partnership with RightEye LLC, a health technology company using eye tracking devices to progressively change healthcare, to commercialize the eye movement tools. According to Business Wire, the tools will be available to healthcare physicians by 2017.
“From the patient’s perspective, the test is very simple,” Gitchel said. “A pair of cameras watch the patient’s eyes from a short distance, while they watch a small dot move on a computer screen. Completely painless, non-invasive, fast and simple from the patient and user perspective.”
The team will be recruiting patients who are at increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and those who already have Parkinson’s disease.
The eye-movement tools are also able to help differentiate around 28 other types of movement disorders such as essential tremor, types of strokes and hyper syphilis.
“Some people happen to get both disorders, Parkinson’s and essential tremor, and neurologists can miss one of the disorders — so the tools are very useful in this case,” Gitchel said.
According to Gitchel, most neurologists are only 50 percent accurate when diagnosing a movement disorder, but with the team’s development of diagnostic eye-movement tools the accuracy rate goes up to 98-99 percent.
“This is a powerful tool, the other available tools are time consuming, invasive and less accurate,” Baron said. “In the future, expect people to use this test to give medicine to slow down the progression of disease; not only Parkinson’s disease but other diseases.”
Hannah Parker, Contributing Writer