ResearchKit could herald new medical era as DNA testing comes to iPhones

iOS ResearchKit
Apple's ResearchKit could be the future of personal healthcare. Image: Apple



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7 May 2015 | 0

Soon the iPhone could be more than just the thing we use to take selfies. Apple is planning to make the iPhone a device that could potentially save your life.

According to MIT Technology Review, Apple is currently collaborating with medical researchers to develop iPhone apps that would enable users to get their DNA tested and analysed. Medical researchers are using Apple’s recently released ResearchKit software framework to develop these apps, and if these collaborations are successful, most iPhone users would be getting their first DNA test via an iOS app. An unnamed source said that Apple is hoping to launch a set of DNA testing apps at WWDC in June.

“Apple launched ResearchKit and got a fantastic response. The obvious next thing is to collect DNA,” Gholson Lyon, a geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, told MIT Technology Review.

Launched last March during Apple’s Spring Forward event, ResearchKit has already been used to develop apps to advance medical research on diabetes, breast cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease and Parkinson’s disease. ResearchKit enables hospitals and scientists to create apps to track and diagnose patients’ conditions in real time using information collected by iPhone sensors. In addition to monitoring personal health levels, ResearchKit apps will also give iPhone users the option to participate in clinical trials. During his Spring Forward keynote address, Apple CEO Tim Cook called ResearchKit “perhaps the most profound change and positive impact the iPhone will make on our health”.

According to MIT Technology Review, the University of California at San Francisco and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York are working on the first two DNA testing apps. UCSF will use the iPhone to collect DNA info and other data from pregnant women to determine the causes of premature birth.

For iPhone users who may be apprehensive to collect and share personal medical data, Apple reaffirmed that it will not store or have access to this sensitive data.

“You decide how your data is shared, and Apple will not see your data,” Jeff Williams, Apple’s senior vice president of operations, said during the ResearchKit presentation in March. Only the medical researchers involved, legally bound by patient confidentiality and privacy laws, will have access to genetic data collected by the iPhone apps.

ResearchKit can also work in tandem with other devices to facilitate medical and genetic data collection. For example, the app developed to measure asthma levels relies on data collected using both an iPhone and a Bluetooth-enabled inhaler. In the same vein, DNA testing apps will incorporate date from ‘spit kits,’ similar to the kits used by genetic testing service, 23andMe.

Although Apple has claimed that it will not have access to patients’ genetic data, the iPhone maker is very involved in the DNA data collection process. Apple has to approve the studies being conducted by medical researchers using ResearchKit. Even the gene-sequencing labs analyzing the spit kits have to have Apple’s stamp of approval.

Considering Apple has sold over 750 million iPhones to date, DNA testing and gene-sharing could become a common practice – providing medical researchers with more accurate data to help treat and prevent serious genetic diseases and conditions.


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