Apple, Boston hospitals partner to launch ResearchKit for medical research

Family of healthkit apps

An ultra-thin Macbook laptop and the Apple Watch were the stars of Apple’s Monday media event in San Francisco. But the company also introduced a new suite of apps for the iPhone that could turn the device into a research tool and transform the way researchers study disease.

Massachusetts General Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute were among the partners who worked with Apple on the five inaugural research apps. They will track asthma, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, and were built with Apple’s new tool, ResearchKit.

Users who download any of those apps can track their symptoms and share that data with researchers. Apple adds a layer of privacy to protect the identity of patients.

ResearchKit can also tap into information being collected by Apple’s HealthKit activity logger, an app that allows people to track their personal health habits.

Apple has open-sourced ResearchKit, which means that researchers anywhere can use the platform to design their own apps. And they can recruit anyone with an iPhone to participate.

“I think it could be a new way to engage people in medical research,” said Stanley Shaw, a researcher at the MGH Center for Systems Biology who was part of the team that designed a GlucoSuccess app to study diabetes using ResearchKit, as one of Apple’s early partners.

GlucoSuccess allows people to enter information about their diet and exercise, and their daily blood glucose reading.

Shaw said the tool will give local researchers the ability to expand the reach of their trials beyond Boston to anyone around the country.

And there are upsides for participants too: “They have the opportunity to look at their data on their phone and derive some insights themselves — that’s a new philosophy of clinical research,” Shaw said.

To maintain privacy, the app allows patients to customize what data will and will not be shared. For example, a person participating in a clinical trial can choose to have that information added to a database, while withholding other information from their health profile.

As part of its rollout Monday, Apple introduced the Share the Journey app. Developed at Dana-Farber, using ResearchKit, the app aims to tracks the recovery path of breast cancer survivors.

It asks patients about changes in their daily mood, fatigue levels, and signs of cognitive difficulties. Such information is typically collected on paper surveys a year or two years following treatment, Partridge said, but the app could request this information daily, weekly or monthly. The goal is understand the differences that cancer survivors encounter after treatment, and ultimately help them manage those symptoms more effectively.

Ann Partridge, director of the Adult Survivorship Program at Dana-Farber and a member of the team that developed the app, said that the ability for patients to enter information in real time creates a valuable database.

Partridge said she anticipates that patients will sign up because breast cancer patients in particular are often eager to share their information to help other patients. “In the breast cancer community and many other patent groups, there are people who do things out of altruism only,” she said.

Her team is aware that using the iPhone as a data source limits participants to people who can afford to buy an iPhone, and probably one that skews younger. “We have to take that into account as well,” she said.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at
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