With more than 700 million iPhones sold globally, Apple has built a new open source software framework that it hopes will revolutionize medical research by turning iPhone users into powerful diagnostic tools for gathering health data.

At Apple’s March 9 product launch event, the company announced ResearchKit, a new platform for researchers to host mobile apps designed to dramatically change how the antiquated methods of medical research—and the treatment of diseases—are conducted.

“One of the biggest challenges researchers have is recruiting,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s senior vice president of operations. “Small sample sizes—sometimes 50 to 100 people—limits our understanding of diseases. Another issue is subjective data.”

The frequency of data in medical research, Williams said, has also been limited because researchers “often get snapshots of data through time” rather than the daily and hourly “ebb and flow” of disease symptoms. “But, perhaps the most significant challenge is the communication flow,” he argued. “When you participate in a study, you often don’t hear back until the very end of the study—if at all.”    

ResearchKit will make it easier to recruit participants for large-scale medical studies, allowing researchers to access a broad cross-section of the population, Williams says. Study participants can complete tasks or submit surveys weekly and even daily right from an app, so researchers spend less time on paperwork and more time analyzing data.

“Perhaps the most profound change and positive impact that iPhone will make is on our health,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook at Monday’s launch event. The company announced that medical research institutions have already developed apps with ResearchKit for studies on asthma, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

Providing Data Access

Through an interactive and informed consent process, ResearchKit app users can choose which studies to participate in and the data they want to share in each study. When granted permission by the user, apps can access data such as weight, blood pressure, glucose levels and asthma inhaler use, which are measured by third-party devices and apps.

“There are hundreds of millions of iPhone users out there, many of whom would gladly contribute [data] if it were just easier to do so,” asserted Williams. However, he emphasized that “there is nothing more sensitive than your medical data” and that “Apple will not see your data.”

The Asthma Health app, developed by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and LifeMap Solutions, is designed to facilitate asthma patient education and self-monitoring, promote positive behavioral changes and reinforce adherence to treatment plans based on current asthma guidelines. The study will track symptom patterns in an individual and potential triggers for these exacerbations so that researchers can learn new ways to personalize asthma treatment. 

The Share the Journey app, developed by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Penn Medicine, Sage Bionetworks and UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, is a research study that aims to understand why some breast cancer survivors recover faster than others, why their symptoms vary over time and what can be done to improve symptoms. The app will use surveys and sensor data on iPhone to collect and track fatigue, mood and cognitive changes, sleep disturbances and reduction in exercise. 

The MyHeart Counts app, developed by Stanford Medicine, measures activity and uses risk factor and survey information to help researchers more accurately evaluate how a participant’s activity and lifestyle relate to cardiovascular health. By studying these relationships on a broad scale, researchers hope to better understand how to keep hearts healthier. 

The GlucoSuccess app, developed by Massachusetts General Hospital, seeks to understand how various aspects of a person’s life—diet, physical activity and medications—affect blood glucose levels. The app can also help participants identify how their food choices and activity relate to their best glucose levels. 

The Parkinson mPower app, developed by Sage Bionetworks and the University of Rochester, will help people living with Parkinson’s disease track their symptoms by recording activities using sensors in iPhone. These activities include a memory game, finger tapping, speaking and walking. Activity and survey data from users’ phones are combined with data from other participants at a scale not previously possible, making it the world’s largest and most comprehensive study of Parkinson’s disease. 

ResearchKit will be released next month as an open source framework. However, the five ResearchKit apps—which are supported on iPhone 5, iPhone 5s, iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus and the latest generation of iPod touch—are currently available in the U.S. via the Apple App Store, and will be rolling out to other countries in the future, the company announced.

Brent Iadarola, global research director for mobile and wireless communications at Frost & Sullivan, calls the Apple announcement a “game-changer” with “information technology taking the forefront in research and development in the healthcare industry.” Because ResearchKit is open source, Iadarola tells Health Data Management that the industry will “see a lot of different application developers working with healthcare providers and organizations beyond just the ones that were announced.”

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