Big data — the key to unlocking Parkinson’s

Dr Beckie Port
Apr 11, 2019 · 5 min read

Medical innovation is slow, too slow for the 145,000 people living with Parkinson’s today. We desperately need new treatments to give people back a good quality of life and stop people having to choose between living with the symptoms of the condition or the side effects of the currently available medications.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Finding better treatments for Parkinson’s is a clear unmet need in medicine today and, with the condition on the rise, it will be an even bigger unmet need tomorrow. But despite decades of discovery, finding new and better treatments has remained tantalisingly out of reach — even those treatments that progress to clinical trials too often hit a brick wall when the study fails. This means that today most people are still taking a drug first discovered over 50 years ago. And importantly, we don’t yet have a treatment that can slow the loss of precious brain cells.

But perhaps, hidden away in those failed trials of the past are the clues we need to find new and better treatments sooner rather than later. Every trial produces thousands of individual measurements of people with Parkinson’s. And the key we need to unlock their secrets is an innovation known as big data.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In the past few decades, our computing power has increased almost exponentially. While computers of the past could only manage simple tasks, the field of big data is now able to tackle data sets that are too large or complex to be dealt with by traditional data-processing software.

Big data is being used to tackle the most pressing issues in medicine and is progressing research into everything — from eradicating Ebola to curing cancer; or from reducing antibiotic resistance to halting the spread of neurodegenerative disease.

We interview Jill Gallagher, Clinical Development and Regulatory Manager at Parkinson’s UK, to find out how big data is paving the way towards better clinical trials in Parkinson’s.

“Clinical trials are the most costly and lengthy part of the whole research process and unless trials show positive results, no new treatments will be licenced.

“In recent years, several promising new treatments for Parkinson’s have failed at the clinical trial stage. But many people in the research community believe the problem may not be that the drugs themselves don’t work, but that we’re testing them in the wrong way.

“That’s why we fund and co-lead the Critical Path for Parkinson’s — a united, international consortium, made up of pharmaceutical companies, regulatory agencies, universities and charities. The project is committed to contributing data to the greater good, improving clinical trials and driving towards better treatments using big data.”

“Individually the data that comes from a clinical trial can tell us quite a lot about how a specific treatment may affect people. Unfortunately, not all trials are a success but that doesn’t mean the data collected is not of value.

“By combining results from individual trials, we can see trends and identify factors that may help us show that treatments tested in future trials actually work. We can even get valuable data from the placebo (dummy drug) groups, as the measurements give us a better understanding of how Parkinson’s progresses in a clinical trial.

“And it’s not just data from trials of treatments that can help — we learn a lot from studies that measure and monitor Parkinson’s. The more high-quality data we can combine, the more detailed the picture of Parkinson’s becomes.”

“To date, we have received the combined data from around 8,000 people taking part in specific clinical trials and cohort studies.

Jill Gallagher

“But as these data come from lots of different studies in many different places, the way it has been recorded differs. What we need to do is unify the data into a single database so that it can be analysed.

“To do this we need the help of specialist data scientists that work at the Critical Path Institute. This is a team in the US that has over 10 years of experience working with data from many different health conditions. They’re now turning their expertise to help answer important questions about Parkinson’s that we hope will benefit clinical research around the world.”

“This database will help us to answer some of the most important questions in Parkinson’s clinical trials, such as the best ways to assess if new treatments are working, how long a trial should go on for to measure a difference, and even who should take part in the trial to give the best chance of success.

“The more data we have, the more important insight we will gain into how certain factors can influence if a trial is a success or a failure. It’s this big picture view, which comes from big data, that will help us make successful future trials more likely.”

The Critical Path for Parkinson’s consortium was launched in 2014 and has already received data from Parkinson’s UK-funded observational studies, and from other leading Parkinson’s researchers in both industry and academia.

Recently, it received data from clinical trials run by two large pharmaceutical companies — this is really important as it will aid the design of better clinical trials in the future.

Diane Stephenson, Executive Director of the Critical Path for Parkinson’s explains how the consortium is working to get treatments to those who need it faster:

“The Critical Path for Parkinson’s is dedicated to learning as much as we can from the thousands of people with Parkinson’s we’ve worked with from around the globe.

“By carrying out sophisticated investigations of the data collected, we are able to learn how to target new promising therapies to the right people. Such innovative treatment approaches give much hope and promise that ongoing and future therapies will reach those in need.”

Parkinson’s UK

Get the latest research news, discover more about Parkinson’s and read about how others are getting involved. For information and support, visit

Dr Beckie Port

Written by

Research Communications Manager at @ParkinsonsUK. Ex-researcher in oncology and virology.

Parkinson’s UK

Get the latest research news, discover more about Parkinson’s and read about how others are getting involved. For information and support, visit

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