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Apple Aims to Transform Medical Research: Can It Really Do That?

Apple CEO Tim Cook boasted that ResearchKit will "transform medical research in a way that's truly profound." But the jury is still out on this mobile device-based tool.

Chris Newmarker

Apple ResearchKit MyHeart Counts
The MyHeart Counts app, developed through ResearchKit, in action. (Art courtesy of Apple)

Just days after Apple unveiled ResearchKit, an open source software framework designed for medical and health research, thousands of people have signed up through its initial apps to be research study subjects, according to Bloomberg.

The open question is how helpful the resulting research will be.

Bloomberg reports that only a day after Apple's announcement, Stanford University researchers found 11,000 people signed up for cardiovascular study through the MyHeart Counts app they developed through ResearchKit. The nonprofit Sage Bionetworks reported nearly 6000 people signed up for the Parkinson's disease mPower app that it developed with the University of Rochester.

The other three initial apps include:

  • The Asthma Health app, developed by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and LifeMap Solutions;
  • The Share the Journey breast cancer app, developed by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Penn Medicine, Sage Bionetworks, and UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center;
  • The GlucoSuccess diabetes app, developed by Massachusetts General Hospital.

Such medical research study participation could be a godsend, since researchers often have trouble even finding a few hundred people to participate. And participants can skew toward age groups with more time for research studies: people who are college age, or retirees, for example.

Apple, in contrast, has 700 million iPhone users around the world. Conducting research over iPhones could also pose advantages because they could silently collect data such as physical activity through a person's day, without relying on people to honestly and reliably report back on their activities.

"ResearchKit gives the scientific community access to a diverse, global population and more ways to collect data than ever before," Jeff Williams, Apple's senior vice president of operations, said Monday.

Experts, though, point out to media outlets including Bloomberg and Wired that there are potential drawbacks to the ResearchKit setup, too.

The iPhone users, for example, tend to be more educated, so there is information bias in the sample size, too, albeit a much larger sample size. Granted, ResearchKit might produce much larger sample sizes. But "bias times a million is still bias," Lisa Schwartz, professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, told Bloomberg.

It's also uncertain whether the data collected by smartphones and wearables will be up to snuff scientifically.

"From a research perspective, it's a little challenging... You have to be aware that a smartphone is not going to give you all your tracking activity," Errol Ozdalga, MD, a clinical assistant professor at Stanford University, told Wired.

"We don't know how these are going to work and if they're really going to advance research," added Eric Topol, MD, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, CA, and the chief academic officer of Scripps Health.

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at BIOMEDevice Boston, May 6-7, 2015.

Chris Newmarker is senior editor of Qmed and MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @newmarker.

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