Apple open-sources ResearchKit for global community

Apple has released an open source software framework called ResearchKit that is designed to help health and medical researchers more easily develop apps and which could in effect turn the iPhone into a ubiquitous research tool.

Designed to capture data from Apple's Health app as well as third-party devices and apps, the company has decided to develop ResearchKit as open source software so it can also be used on any platform.

ResearchKit will be made available to the global research community next month, with five US-specific apps available now. The five apps – aimed at research into Parkinson's disease, asthma, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes – are available for US researchers from and will be rolled out to other countries in the future.

For researchers, the main benefit will be the ability to recruit many more patients into research studies. Participants will be able to register to take part on their iPhones, and will be able to use some of its existing capabilities such as GPS sensors, accelerometers and gyroscopes to help inform medical studies.

They will also be able to monitor their own health measurements without having to wait until the study period is finished.

Announcing the new project this morning, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that the most profound and positive effect the iPhone could have is on health.

“There are already over 900 incredible apps that help you manage and track your health and fitness, but we have always wanted to make the biggest difference that we could make,” Mr Cook said. “As we worked on HealthKit, we came across an even broader impact that iPhone could make, and that is on medical research.”

Apple also released the iOS 8.2 operating system for iPhone and iPads today, which will support the official release of the company's new Apple Watch. The watch will also be able to provide data through HealthKit to ResearchKit.

Apple's senior vice president of operations, Jeff Williams, said the idea for ResearchKit came during the development of HealthKit, when the company talked to medical researchers about the challenges they faced conducting population health studies.

“One of the biggest challenges researchers have is recruiting,” Mr Williams said. “They often have to pay people to participate, which by the way doesn't give you the best cross section of the population.

“But the bigger issue is small sample sizes, sometimes 50 to 100 people, which limits our understanding of diseases. Another issue is subjective data. The most common way to assess Parkinson’s is to have a patient walk in front of a physician and the physician rates them on a scale of zero to four.”

He said perhaps the most significant challenge was communication flow. Patients participating in a study often don't hear about its results until the end of the study if at all.

“We looked at these problems and we saw an opportunity to help,” he said. “There are hundreds of millions of iPhone users out there, many of whom would gladly contribute if it were just easier to do so.”

Apple has been working with a number of research institutions around the world over the past year on the project, in which time it developed five apps that are targeted at the world's most serious chronic conditions.

One example is Parkinson's disease. Apple has worked with the University of Rochester in New York and Sage Bionetworks to create the mPower app, which allows the iPhone to be used as a diagnostic tool. It includes a tapping test to evaluate hand tremors, a speech test using a voice processor to evaluate vocal chord variations, and a simple gait test.

“Now all you have to do is stick your iPhone in your pocket, walk out 20 steps and back, and the accelerometer and gyroscope precisely measure gait,” Mr Williams said. “You can do that anywhere, not just in the doctor's office.

“The app also pulls data from HealthKit like your activity data, from your Apple Watch, from your iPhone or other devices. Researchers believe that exercise can affect the symptoms of Parkinson's but some believe that exercise may actually slow or even halt the progression of Parkinson's, and now researchers get a chance to look at that data.

“But here's the best part: the user sees this right on his or her phone, empowering them to understand and possibly influence their health long before a research study is concluded.”

Apple also worked with Massachusetts General Hospital on an app that aims to help diabetics to understand how diet, physical activity and medications can affect blood glucose levels. It also has an educational component to try to influence behaviour.

Researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai are using an asthma app to see if it can help patient manage their condition.

“Mount Sinai is giving away some spirometers and Bluetooth inhalers for data accuracy, and then they've teamed up with Cornell Medical College and they are actually swabbing city surfaces throughout New York City to look for pathogens,” Mr Williams said.

“And then the GPS coordinates from the iPhone will compare to exacerbations from the spirometer data and then map that to the pathogen map and try to tie all of that together to understand what the triggers are for asthma. That's just cool.”

Mr Williams said Apple will not be able to see personal data and users can choose which research they want to participate in.

“Apple has always believed that amazing things can happen when you put technology in the hands of the many. There is a brilliant and motivated research community out there and we can't wait to see what they do with it.”

Posted in Australian eHealth

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