Apple Is Bringing Clinical Trials to Your Fingertips

Woman uses apps on an iPhone

Trusting smartphone apps to help manage the details of life is commonplace in this digital age.

There are dozens of applications on multiple platforms that help users manage their finances, schedule appointments and control their weight. Now, one of the biggest app developers in the world wants to revolutionize how our devices manage disease and possibly provide better outcomes.

Apple recently launched ResearchKit, a digital tool equipped with iPhone apps created specifically for medical research.

The first five ResearchKit apps include:

  • Parkinson mPower
  • Share the Journey (for breast cancer)
  • GlucoSuccess (for diabetes)
  • Asthma Health
  • MyHeart Counts (for heart disease)

The tech giant collaborated with various university researchers to develop the toolkit it hopes will enable health care professionals and researchers recruit and enroll participants in clinical trials, as well as collect data and monitor health conditions related to the specific disease under study.

For many cancer patients, including those with mesothelioma, clinical trials are crucial to their treatment and survival. While there are other apps that help cancer patients, Apple’s tool may impact the future of clinical trials.

ResearchKit Will First Track Common Diseases

So far, most of the research will involve tracking participants’ daily lives and how their conditions impact them.

Patients who download the Parkinson mPower app will be able to report information on dexterity, voice strength, memory and gait several times a day.

The Share the Journey breast cancer app tracks cancer survivors’ post-treatment conditions such as fatigue, cognitive difficulties, sleep disturbances and mood changes.

Asthma Health app, the main tool in a large-scale study at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, will “facilitate asthma patient education and self-monitoring, promote positive behavioral changes, and reinforce adherence to treatment plans according to current asthma guidelines,” a Mt. Sinai statement published in the Los Angeles Times shows.

Apple did not detail future plans to cover other conditions such as mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.

Mixed Reactions from Medical Community

Medical researchers met Apple’s introduction of the cutting-edge applications with hopefulness, as well as some hesitancy.

“Hopefully, we’ll get more people involved in trials, better data and more answers for diseases,” said Dr. Pamela Tenaerts, executive director of the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative, an organization working to improve the quality and efficiency of clinical trials sponsored by Duke University and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

But Terri Hinkley, interim executive director of the Association of Clinical Research Professionals, foresees issues with this type of data collection. She said many smartphone users regularly click the “I agree” option without reading the fine print of the user agreements.

“I would shudder to think that informed consent would be collected that way,” Hinkley said.

Mixed Reviews from Mesothelioma Researchers

For mesothelioma patients, solid research is at the core of understanding the disease and developing better ways to manage and cure it.

“There is a real push for patient-reported outcomes to supplement clinical testing. It has revolutionized how research is done,” William Richards, Ph.D., of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told Asbestos.com.

The mesothelioma researcher said patients are asked how they are managing the disease, and how it has affected the quality of their lives. He sees Apple’s new apps as a way to possibly collect that data more effectively.

“For example if a patient has to go to the emergency room they could use the app to report that on the spot,” Richards added.

He explained his center’s ongoing “Quality of Life” trial requires mesothelioma patients to fill out a survey each time they come back for a follow-up appointment. If they don’t come back, then data isn’t collected. An app would allow for more immediate and accurate data to monitor this type of information.

A researcher at the Pacific Meso Center, which is part of the Pacific Heart, Lung & Blood Institute in Los Angeles, told Asbestos.com the apps might be useful for clinical trials, but “I don’t think it would be useful for cancer since the disease requires physical person-to-person examination to measure progress.”

Is It Too Soon to Predict Its Impact?

Although Asbestos.com reached out to numerous mesothelioma doctors and treatment centers across the country for comment, many still were unfamiliar with Apple’s ResearchKit.

Kathryn Schmitz, Ph.D., of Penn Medicine’s biostatistics and epidemiology department appears in a promotional film produced by Apple to market ResearchKit. She already applauds the tool’s potential.

“The concept that I could kick out a survey to patients every day [and] every week that would show up on their phone and would actually improve their health and our ability to care for them — that is a game-changer. That is awesome,” Schmitz said in the film.

  1. Healy, M. (2015, March 9). Apple’s medical research raises hopes, questions. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-apple-medical-research-app-20150309-story.html#
  2. Apple.com (2015, March). Now everybody can do their part to advance medical research. Retrieved from http://www.apple.com/researchkit/

Beth Swantek has been writing professionally for 30 years. She is a former news reporter and anchor for a CBS affiliate in Michigan and often reported breaking medical and political news. Currently, she teaches media writing and video production at Lawrence Technological University in the Detroit area, as well as working as a freelance writer and producer.

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