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Apple’s ResearchKit links iPhones to medical research

Adam Allington Mar 10, 2015
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While technophiles across the world are still abuzz over yesterday’s unveiling of the new Apple smartwatch, the company broke some other news that might more be even more important.

Apple calls it “ResearchKit”, an open-source platform that will allow medical researchers to turn smartphones into medical diagnostic devices.

Many people are already used to the idea of wearable devices to do things like track exercise, or sleep. Jeff Williams is a senior vice president of operations at Apple. He told an audience yesterday that the key benefit of the ResearchKit platform is the potential to help doctors substantially increase the sample size for clinical studies.

“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 50-100 people,” says Williams.

Using smartphones could allow researchers to gather data on people where they live, even all the way into their pockets, which sounds kind of creepy when it comes from NSA, but in the context of a voluntary option for medical research it, could significantly help our understanding of disease.

“It’s been really hard to untangle complex diseases like cancer or Parkinson’s disease or cancer, when you only see someone three times a year for 15 minutes,” says John Wilbanks, of Sage Bionetworks.

Sage is collaborating with Apple and researchers at the University of Rochester on the development of an app to study Parkinson’s called “mPower.” Wilbanks says that the sensors and gyroscopes in a standard iPhone could collect data, for instance, on how a person with Parkinson’s walks.

“So we could either have a doctor do a visual inspection of that once a year,” says Wilbanks, “or every couple of days you could get a notification from the phone that says something like, ‘holding the phone in your right hand, take 20 steps forward and 20 steps back’.”

The entire ResearchKit platform will be available for all developers in April. 

Apple says all data shared on the ResearchKit platform will be de-identified for privacy and the data itself live on the individual phone and will not be seen by Apple.

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