There’s nothing better at solving small, day-to-day, First World problems than an Apple device. Take the iPhone. It saves you time, orders you cabs, kills boredom.
Read this: Wearables versus killer diseases
It also has huge potential, not least because there’s hundreds of millions of iPhones being used everyday. Apple has decided to tap into this potential to bring medical research into the 21st century with its new ResearchKit software platform which has been live for just under a year.
In that time, over 100,000 iPhone users have already enrolled in the program since the arrival of the first ResearchKit apps on the App Store. ResearchKit has now been used by more than 50 researchers and developers around the world including the UK, Europe and in Japan.
What is ResearchKit?
Essentially it’s an open source software tool for medical researchers, doctors and scientists to use to help collect data on people suffering from diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes.
They can use ResearchKit to build health monitoring apps for the iPhone that can collect data from both the smartphone and in time, Apple’s sensor-laden smartwatch will also play its part its part too.
Patients can then opt in by downloading the apps and completing tasks assigned to them by the researchers or simply allowing access to the data collected by Apple’s Health app.
How will it help medical researchers?
Back at Apple’s Spring Forward event last year, researchers described how the usual process of conducting research into a disease is sending out tens of thousands of letters asking for participants and receiving just hundreds of responses.
With user-friendly ResearchKit apps, anyone with an iPhone will be able to opt into medical studies relating to their health conditions saving institutions time and money. It also provides access to people who have never completed medical studies because of where they live, for instance.
“By using Apple’s new ResearchKit framework, we’re able to extend participation beyond our local community and capture significantly more data to help us understand how asthma works,” said Eric Schadt, Professor of Genomics at the Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai.
It also means data collected by the iPhone and Apple Watch sensors can be sent to researchers much more frequently than if patients were required to travel to give samples or perform tests. Data on fitness, speech, memory, gait and motor impairment can be collected up to once every second rather than once every three months. Plus there’s less paperwork and admin to deal with.
How will it help patients?
As well as tracking and recording their own heart rate, sleep patterns, activity levels and memory in Apple Health, sufferers of diseases such as breast cancer and asthma can help researchers trying to make breakthroughs in treatment with very little extra effort.
It’s essentially a chance to help future generations of sufferers without long distances to travel or tiring days performing tests in a lab.
Read this: 22 essential Apple Health supported apps
Some of the example apps which Apple has already shown off even help sufferers make different lifestyle, food and exercise choices as they continue to input their data.
For instance, the GlucoSuccess app developed by Massachusetts General Hospital can help participants with diabetes understand how their food and activity choices affect their glucose levels.
Which diseases are being targeted first?
Here’s a rundown of some of the apps and research collaborations that are already taking place.
SleepHealth is an app built by IBM Watson and the American Sleep Apnea Association that uses the sensors from the Apple Watch and iPhone to monitor and study sleep quality. The idea is to use this data to see the effects on productivity, alertness and overall health.
The Autism Beyond App takes advantage of the iPhone’s front-facing camera to detect the changes in emotion to a child’s face when they’re watching videos on the smartphone.
EpiWatch is one of the first ResearchKit apps that uses the Apple Watch. Built by john Hopkins researchers, the app uses data from the built-in heart rate sensor, accelerometer and gyroscope to track measure changes when epileptic seizures take place and analyse possible triggers, medications and side affects.
The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, together with a company called LifeMap Solutions, have developed the Asthma Health app. The study will track both symptoms and triggers and encourage participants to alter their behaviour and stick to treatment plans.
Share the Journey is an app that looks at breast cancer survivors, developed by a number of institutions including UCLA and Penn Medicine. It will use a combination of sensor data from the iPhones and participant surveys to track mood, fatigue, exercise and sleep to try to find out why some breast cancer survivors recover quicker than others.
The University of Rochester worked with Sage Bionetworks to build the Parkinson’s mPower app. Using memory games, tapping on the iPhone screen, speaking into the microphone and walking, participants can add their sensory data to the study. The researchers are aiming to help people living with the disease by tracking symptoms of Parkinson’s.
Stanford Medicine has built the final app on the launch list, MyHeart Counts. Researchers will combine data on activity levels with surveys and risk information to study the affect of lifestyle and exercise on heart health.
All in the genes
in the latest development, Apple revealed that it is now enabling researchers to integrate genetic data into their studies. 23andMe, a genomics and biotechnology company have designed a module that will now make it easier for participants to contribute genetic data to medical research
There’s the option for the module to be funded by researchers and there’s already a few ResearchKit studies taking advantage of the genetic data. That includes the Asthma Health app, MyHeart Counts app that focuses on cardiovascular health and the PPD Act app that aims to get a better understanding of depression.
Will Apple look at your data?
When Tim Cook and company first announced ResearchKit it assured people that it wouldn’t collect any of the data generated through the platform. It does however appear to have altered its stance.
Two ResearchKit apps, Mole Mapper and the mPower Mobile Parkinson Disease Study appear to have granted Apple access as a secondary researcher. It appears the company hopes to better understand the role the iPhone’s sensors are playing to help generate the valuable data.
Apple revealed to Mashable that it will be listed as researcher for certain ResearchKit studies receiving data from participants who consent to share their data.