Biogen, Patients Like Me study suggests fitness trackers can help people with multiple sclerosis

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Difficulty walking is one symptom facing the 2.3 million people with multiple sclerosis. But a wrist-worn fitness tracker paired with a smartphone app could help monitor their condition and fitness routine, according to a study conducted by researchers from Cambridge pharmaceutical company Biogen and the patient community portal Patients Like Me.

For Biogen, the partnership is part of a broad push to invest in technologies that can improve the daily health of the patients with MS — the company is also working with Cleveland Clinic to build an iPad app that could serve as an in-clinic diagnostic tool.

For Cambridge firm Patients Like Me, which hosts forums where patients share information about medications, side-effects, and symptoms, it’s a way to allow their members to contribute to medical research. Recently, Patients Like Me began allowing its members to link and display activity data from their FitBit trackers.

An MS patient’s ability to walk is traditionally assessed by doctors in a clinic during a half-hour appointment. But “in the real world, the pavements in Boston are icy, there are stairs and you don’t only have to walk 25 feet,” said Paul Wicks, vice president of innovation at Patients Like Me. Such data monitoring could offer a long-term view of a person’s fitness habits, granting them more personalized care. For researchers who have access to thousands of cases like this, it could fill in our understanding about the day-to-day reality of living with the disease.

The researchers contacted the more than 1,000 members of the MS community and filled the study within a day, said Jane Rhodes, director of new initiatives at Biogen.

About 250 people responded and were sent Fitbit fitness trackers, of those 203 people accepted the conditions and agreed to share their data with the Patients Like Me researchers for three weeks.

Though nearly half the group had never used an activity tracker before, in a survey after the test, 55 percent of the group said it changed their health routine, and 68 percent said they believed such tracking would help them manage their condition. The team will share preliminary findings at the annual American Academy of Neurology conference in Washington, D.C., this week.

The so-called “quantified self” community is active online, but Wicks says there’s a perspective that’s missing. Most blogs feature “healthy 20-something Silicon Valley men,” who probably don’t encounter the same conditions in their daily lives.

“It may not be a great idea for someone with MS to walk 10,000 steps in Boston in the snow,” for example, Wicks said.

The Biogen-Patients Like Me partnership is the most recent example of big company partnerships that are making it easier to for researchers to access data collected by wearable fitness trackers. On Monday Apple announced a partnership with IBM, the terms of which suggest it will offer its Watson Health platform as a storage house for data collected from Apple’s HealthKit platform. This week, Apple also open the doors to its own clinical trial platform, ResearchKit, which allows researchers to build apps that allow anyone anywhere to download it and participate in a trial.

Image via Flickr user Tatsuo Yamashita

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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