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Apple will let you participate in medical trials with ResearchKit

Back in March at Apple’s press event in Cupertino, Senior Vice President of Operations Jeff Williams announced ResearchKit, a software framework aimed at helping to collect data for medical studies. At first, the kit launched with a few key apps from partners, but more recently, Apple added third-party app support to ResearchKit, so more developers  and medical researchers can make apps for the platform.

Updated on 04-14-2015 by Malarie Gokey: Added news that Apple opened ResearchKit to third-party app developers who assist medical researchers.

The idea, said Williams, is to turn the more than 700 million iPhones sold worldwide into “powerful […] tools” for self-diagnosis and research. By overcoming the infrastructural barriers faced by medical professionals, namely subjective and infrequent sources of data, Apple hopes ResearchKit will help supply researchers with a much larger, more accurate pool from which to draw from for clinical trials.

Opening up ResearchKit to all the developers who work to design apps for medical researchers will certainly help increase the variety of medical conditions that are included in the kit, while also sparking interest from app users who might decide to join the trials. Apple says that around 60,000 people have already enrolled in the research conducted in the first few apps. The company expects the number of participants in ResearchKit studies to grow quickly, as more apps are added.

Apple Asthma Health app

“We are delighted and encouraged by the response to ResearchKit from the medical and research community and the participants contributing to medical research. Studies that historically attracted a few hundred participants are now attracting participants in the tens of thousands,” Jeff Williams, Apple’s senior vice president of Operations, said in a press release. “Medical researchers all over the world are actively exploring how ResearchKit can help them study even more diseases, and we believe the impact on global understanding of health and wellness will be profound.”

Apple partnered with a number of hospitals and institutions ahead of ResearchKit’s official release in April, but Williams highlighted a few during the presentation. The University of Rochester, Xuanwu Hospital, and Capital Medical University worked in tandem to develop an app that can measure the progression of Parkinson’s disease. On the client side, users can test themselves by taking a timed tapping test or measuring their gait and balance, or keep track of their physical activity (which preliminary research suggests can slow the disease).

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Another app, Asthma Health, pairs with Bluetooth inhalers for diagnosis, but also leverages GPS to warn sufferers of areas with high pathogen counts and optionally stream the data to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. MyHearts Counts, developed by Stanford University and Oxford, aims to assist with cardiovascular disease, while a breast cancer app from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and others will collect biometric readings for related research.

The sensitivity of health data raise privacy concerns, obviously, but Williams said Apple won’t see any data. All collected information, he said, is transmitted securely and directly to institutional databases.

All four of the aforementioned apps were released in March. In the future, though, Apple is making ResearchKit open source in the hopes it’ll expand to other platforms.