Newcastle medical company looking at warning signs of Parkinson's disease

FOR quite a few of us, picking up and holding a pen is something we do so regularly that it's almost second nature.

Dr. Rutger Zietsma (inset)
Dr. Rutger Zietsma (inset)

FOR quite a few of us, picking up and holding a pen is something we do so regularly that it's almost second nature. But that everyday action is being used by a Newcastle-based medical company to pick up warning signs of Parkinson's disease.

Manus Neurodynamica is testing a pen linked with software, which is sensitive to the major symptoms of the disease. It hopes to have the product on the market across Europe by 2015.

Parkinson’s is a neurological condition that affects around 127,000 people in the UK. It largely affects older people, but young people aren’t immune. Generally, specialists diagnose the condition by analysing the patient and noting their symptoms, as there are no laboratory tests available.

However, Manus Neurodynamica says its system may be able to improve the early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, and even highlight those who may contract it later in life.

Director Dr Rutger Zietsma says: “We hope to be able to pick up minor changes with this pen, and potentially diagnose the condition earlier.

“Even if a person is not complaining about symptoms, we believe it should be possible to pick up signs based on how the muscles move and how the nervous system controls this movement.”

The prototype is being tested as part of a £1.4m European research project led by Manus. The DiPAR consortium is made up of five European SMEs and a group of universities, which will work toward developing the technology and getting it to market.

Dr Zietsma says the system works by feeding details of how the user holds the pen into specialist software, which can give a reading of how probable it is that they suffer from Parkinson’s or similar neurological disorders.

The three most telling symptoms of such a condition are tremors, a slowness of movement known as Bradykinesia, and rigidity or stiffness. All of these symptoms could affect how the pen is held, in the smallest of ways.

While visible symptoms may not become evident until up to seven years after the disease has developed, Zietsma says the tool should be able to increase the probability of an earlier diagnosis.

“Handwriting is a skill many of us know, but it’s also a very complex motor skill. It’s very suitable for analysing how the nervous system is operating.”

The pen is the result of research that Dr Zietsma began in 2003, although studies in the field have been ongoing for decades. He set up Manus in 2008 after raising around £200,000 for a proof of concept, and based the company in Newcastle despite doing initial research north of the border.

It received initial support from organisations such as Cels, Northstar Ventures, One North East and Business Link.

“Newcastle is a really good place to start a business,” says Zietsma. “There’s a really good support network.”

By 2009, the company was applying for a larger grant with help from Enterprise Europe Network North and the Centre for Process Innovation. It received funding from the European Commission’s Research Executive Agency, which allows smaller firms to subcontract universities to do important work.

Dr Zietsma is the only employee on the payroll at Manus, but it is currently using the expertise of universities across Europe, in locations such as Scotland, Holland, Germany and Finland.

Manus also benefits from the expertise of a clinical and strategic advisory board, with three business development experts based in the UK, US and continental Europe.

The UK expert was David Johnson of Durham’s Venture to Think. The company has just started to receive the results of its first pre-clinical trials, and hopes to be able to raise more funds to enable it to implement the technology across Europe.

It is looking to refine its software and continue clinical trials over the next few years.

Should the pen and software system make to the market as planned, the company hopes to continue developing medical technologies for use by clinicians.

Dr Zietsma said: “We know what the market opportunities are. We’re very active in the fields of biomechanics and neuroscience, and there are a lot of different uses for that in areas such as rehabilitation.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer