Apple launches open source software framework for medical research
March 16, 2015
Apple has announced an open source software framework designed for medical and health research, helping doctors and scientists gather data more frequently and more accurately from participants using iPhone apps.
Called, ResearchKit, it has already been tried by research institutions that have used it to develop apps for studies on asthma, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Users decide if they want to participate in a study and how their data are shared.
“IOS apps already help millions of customers track and improve their health,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s senior vice president of operations. “With hundreds of millions of iPhones in use around the world, we saw an opportunity for Apple to have an even greater impact by empowering people to participate in and contribute to medical research. ResearchKit gives the scientific community access to a diverse, global population and more ways to collect data than ever before.”
ResearchKit turns an iPhone into a tool for medical research. When granted permission by the user, apps can access data from the Health app such as weight, blood pressure, glucose levels and asthma inhaler use, which are measured by third-party devices and apps. HealthKit is a software framework Apple introduced with iOS 8 to provide developers with the ability for health and fitness apps to communicate with each other. ResearchKit can request from a user access to the accelerometer, microphone, gyroscope and GPS sensors in an iPhone to gain insight into a patient’s gait, motor impairment, fitness, speech and memory.
The tool also makes it easier to recruit participants for large-scale studies, accessing a broad cross-section of the population, not just those within driving distance of an institution. Study participants can complete tasks or submit surveys right from the app, so researchers spend less time on paperwork and more time analysing data. Researchers can present an interactive informed consent process; users choose which studies to participate in and the data they want to provide in each study.
Developed by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and LifeMap Solutions, the Asthma Health app is designed to facilitate asthma patient education and self-monitoring, promote positive behavioural changes and reinforce adherence to treatment plans according to current asthma guidelines. The study tracks symptom patterns in an individual and potential triggers for these exacerbations so that researchers can learn new ways to personalise asthma treatment.
“When it comes to researching how we can better diagnose and prevent disease, numbers are everything,” said Eric Schadt, professor of genomics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “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. Using iPhone’s advanced sensors, we’re able to better model an asthma patient’s condition to enable us to deliver a more personalised, more precise 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. Share the Journey will use surveys and sensor data on iPhones to collect and track fatigue, mood and cognitive changes, sleep disturbances and reduction in exercise.
“We’re excited to use these new ResearchKit tools from Apple to expand participant recruitment and quickly gather even more data through the simple use of an iPhone app,” said Patricia Ganz, director of cancer prevention and control research at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “The data it will provide take us one step closer to developing more personalised care. Access to more diverse patient-reported health data will help us learn more about long-term after effects of cancer treatments and provide us with a better understanding of the breast cancer patient experience.”
Developed by Stanford Medicine, the MyHeart Counts app 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 will be able to understand better how to keep hearts healthier.
Massachusetts General Hospital developed the GlucoSuccess app 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, enabling them to see correlations clearly and take more active roles in their own well-being.
Developed by Sage Bionetworks and the University of Rochester, the Parkinson mPower app helps people living with Parkinson’s disease track their symptoms by recording activities using sensors in an iPhone. These activities include a memory game, finger tapping, speaking and walking. Activity and survey data from the phone are combined with data from other participants to fuel Parkinson’s research at a scale never before possible, making this the world’s largest and most comprehensive study of this disease.
ResearchKit will be released as an open source framework next month, providing researchers with the ability to contribute to specific activity modules in the framework, such as memory or gait testing, and share them with the global research community to advance what is known about disease.