One Apple announcement from yesterday signals 'a new era' for medical research

Tim Cook researchkitStephen Lam/Getty ImagesApple CEO Tim Cook stands in front of a ResearchKit logo.

Some of Apple’s announcements from yesterday are sure to sell watches and computers to those in the market for them, but only one announcement could actually transform people’s lives and open up a new era of medicine: ResearchKit.

Using ResearchKit, medical researchers can develop iPhone apps that provide medical information to individuals and collect data from users that can then be used to develop future treatments.

That’s huge — it’s taking advantage of the powerful computers that hundreds of millions of people carry in their pockets or purses in order to collect a potentially unprecedented amount of information on the conditions that afflict people around the world. Armed with data at that unprecedented scale, researchers hope they will be able to come up with better ways to treat disease and improve people’s lives.

Five launch apps developed with some of the top universities and research institutions in the country will collect information on asthma, Parkinson’s, breast cancer, diabetes, and heart health.

“We’re hopeful that this could potentially be one of the — if not the — largest real world epidemiological studies in asthma ever,” says Dr. Yvonne Chan, a researcher and assistant professor of emergency medicine, genetics, and genomic sciences at Mount Sinai Hospital, the research institution that partnered with Apple to launch the asthma app.

Apple watch event researchkitScreenshotJeff Williams, Apple’s senior VP of operations, introduced ResearchKit.

Here’s why that’s such a big deal: Data on how diseases affect people is the key to coming up with ways to treat or cure disease. And while tens of millions of people suffer from asthma and the rest of these conditions, it can be hard to collect data on large numbers of these people, especially for anyone trying to gather information from people of various ages, socioeconomic levels, geographic locations, and other variables.

If patients are logging data from their phones, those patients can do that from anywhere, which provides studies with information and feedback immediately. If those patients waited until they checked in with a doctor or researcher every three months, they may not be able to provide data with the same level of accuracy and specificity.

As Apple pointed out at their March 9 event, they have sold more than 700 million iPhones around the globe — if even a tiny fraction of people decide to participate in these ResearchKit studies (which are all opt-in, meaning people do have to choose to participate), those numbers will still be huge.

For Chan, the numbers here are the key. With so many people involved, she explains, they will be able to detect variations and anomalies in the data that never would have been visible while studying fewer people.

To show how big a deal that is, many of the researchers in Apple’s launch video talk about how traditional recruiting for medical studies hasn’t changed much in decades, and how it frequently involves putting up flyers or sending out letters, something that doesn’t get a great response rate.

Dr. Kathryn Schmitz of Penn Medicine says that for one study, they got 305 responses after sending out 60,000 letters (and while yes, these researchers are in Apple’s video promoting the product, they really are some of the top in their fields and represent some of the premier institutions in the world).

These apps, developed by universities, could perhaps gather an unprecedented amount of data, provided people participate — but that’s not all. They can help people on an individual level too.

As Chan explains, the key to managing chronic diseases is avoiding the triggers that make them worse. If people using the asthma app over time notice the things that set off that chest-tightening inability to breathe, they could develop better control over those moments and improve their quality of life. At the same time, noting those moments on an app will allow Mt. Sinai to cross-reference them with things like air quality data, deepening our understanding of the disease.

Other apps do the same. The Parkinson’s app, for example, helps patients test their hand and voice stability and to track the (potentially beneficial) aspects of exercise.

And because medical issues raise such serious privacy concerns, Apple says that they will never see an individual’s health data — it goes directly to the researchers.

ResearchKit diseasesAppleResearchKit is launching with apps that investigate these diseases, but more could be coming soon.

ResearchKit is open source too, meaning that more institutions and researchers can develop new apps that might cover other conditions.

To be fair, there are still questions — will people sign up for these studies and use the apps to log their data? Chan explains that it will probably help that many of these apps provide ways for individuals to help learn about and understand their conditions. They should find the app useful, she says, but there’s also the appealing opportunity “to help improve science and society overall and improve life for asthma sufferers.”

These apps and studies are definitely not meant to replace medical care or traditional research, explains Chan, just to add to it.

The team plans on iterating on and improving the asthma app based on feedback as they go. And in the future, they want to find ways to develop apps that might further Mt. Sinai’s larger goal of using genomic data to develop personalised medicine.

“It is a new era,” says Chan, and this initial launch is hopefully “the first of many greater things to come.”

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