Google and Biogen Idec Join Forces On MS Research


In April 2014, the Alexandria Summit, an annual invitation-only meeting of premier scientists,  hosted a one-day conference in New York City focused on the topic of digital health. The conference brought together some of the world’s most forward-thinking experts in the field of computer technology and medicine. Deborah Brooks, the co-founder of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, gave the keynote address to a small room of 23 delegates representing major academic research centers, pharmaceutical companies, health systems, insurance companies, private industry, and venture capital firms.

During the event, a chance meeting between Andrew Conrad, the director of Google X Lab’s life science division, and George Scangos, the CEO of pharmaceutical giant Biogen Idec, has culminated in a partnership between the two organizations that will bring new perspectives and technologies to the fight against multiple sclerosis. The goal of the partnership will be to uncover why MS progresses so differently in each patient.

“We used to see patients at the beginning stages of MS — two women would come in with optic neuritis, they couldn’t see out of one eye, they’d have some spots on the MRI scan, and they looked very similar,” explains Rick Rudick, Biogen VP of Development. “But as we followed them along, 10 years later, one would be a championship tennis player still and one would be in a nursing home. I never understood that.”

The multi-year project will challenge Conrad and his colleagues at Google X Labs to develop a data collection platform that will allow Biogen to begin collecting massive amounts of data on MS patients as their condition progresses. A major barrier to MS research today is that after a diagnosis is made and treatments are started, most MS patients only see their doctors a few times a year, leaving medical information from their daily lives, like sleep patterns, mental health, and daily activity levels, completely unrecorded. This information will be systematically captured over multiple years, and then it will be analyzed by Biogen and Google to see if the data holds any clues into what drives or slows the progression of MS in patients.

Biogen is the leading developer of MS therapies, with five drugs currently on the market approved to treat MS. There are currently no approved cures for MS, only drugs that suppress the immune system to reduce the harm that MS causes the patient. Biogen will use the insights gleaned from its Google X partnership to propel its MS drug development efforts.

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