Software turns smartphones into tools for medical research - BNA iTech

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Software turns smartphones into tools for medical research

Software turns smartphones into tools for medical research

She taps the phone's screen in a certain pattern, records a spoken phrase and walks a short distance while the phone's motion sensors measure her gait.

"The thing with Parkinson's disease is there's not much you can do about it," 
she said of the nervous-system disorder, which can be managed but has no cure. "So when I heard about this, I thought, 'I can do this.

"Smartphone apps are the latest tools to emerge from the intersection of health care and Silicon Valley, where tech companies are also working on new ways of bringing patients and doctors together online, applying massive computing power to analyze DNA and even developing ingestible "smart" pills for detecting cancer.

More than 75,000 people have enrolled in health studies that use specialized iPhone apps, built with software Apple Inc. developed to help turn the popular smartphone into a research tool. Once enrolled, iPhone owners use the apps to submit data on a daily basis, by answering a few survey questions or using the iPhone's built-in sensors to measure their symptoms.

Scientists overseeing the studies say the apps could transform medical research by helping them collect information more frequently and from more people, across larger and more diverse regions, than they're able to reach with traditional health studies.

A smartphone "is a great platform for research," said Dr. Michael McConnell, a Stanford University cardiologist, who's using an app to study heart disease. "It's one thing that people have with them every day.

"While the studies are in early stages, researchers also say a smartphone's microphone, motion sensors and touchscreen can take precise readings that, in some cases, may be more reliable than a doctor's observations. These can be correlated with other health or fitness data and even environmental conditions, such as smog levels, based on the phone's GPS locater.
Software turns smartphones into tools for medical research

But if smartphones hold great promise for medical research, experts say there are issues to consider when turning vast numbers of people into walking test subjects.

The most important is safeguarding privacy and the data that's collected, according to ethics experts. In addition, researchers say apps must be designed to ask questions that produce useful information, without overloading participants or making them lose interest after a few weeks. Study organizers also acknowledge that iPhone owners tend to be more affluent and not necessarily an accurate mirror of the world's population.

Apple had previously created software called HealthKit for apps that track iPhone owners' health statistics and exercise habits. Senior Vice President Jeff Williams said the company wants to help scientists by creating additional software for more specialized apps, using the iPhone's capabilities and vast user base—estimated at 70 million or more in North America alone.

"This is advancing research and helping to democratize medicine,"
Williams said in an interview.
Apple launched its Research Kit program in March with five apps to investigate Parkinson's, asthma, heart disease, diabetes and breast cancer. A sixth app was released last month to collect information for a long-term health study of gays and lesbians by the University of California, San Francisco. Williams said more are being developed.

For scientists, a smartphone app is a relatively inexpensive way to reach thousands of people living in different settings and geographic areas. Traditional studies may only draw a few hundred participants, said Dr. Ray Dorsey, a University of Rochester neurologist who's leading the Parkinson's app study called mPower.

"Participating in clinical studies is often a burden," he explained." 
You have to live near where the study's being conducted. You have to be able to take time off work and go in for frequent assessments.

"Smartphones also offer the ability to collect precise readings, Dorsey added. One test in the Parkinson's study measures the speed at which participants tap their fingers in a particular sequence on the iPhone's touchscreen. Dorsey said that's more objective than a process still used in clinics, where doctors watch patients tap their fingers and assign them a numerical score.

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