What Does Your iPhone Want With Your DNA?
If you’re looking to learn about your DNA and the insights that your genetic data can offer, there so far isn’t a killer app to do so. But Apple seems to be looking to change that. Antonio Regalado reports for MIT Technology Review that Apple is collaborating with researchers to launch apps that would enable iPhone users to get their DNA tested. The apps are built on ResearchKit, the software platform that Apple introduced in March. ResearchKit enables hospitals and scientists to run medical studies via the iPhone by collecting data from the devices’ sensors, or through surveys delivered to users.
Pushing iPhone users to submit DNA samples to researchers will thrust Apple’s iPhone into the center of what Regalado characterizes as a widening battle for people’s genetic information. Universities, tech companies like Google, direct-to-consumer laboratories, and even the U.S. government want to amass “mega-databases” of gene information in pursuit of clues about the causes of disease.
In the two initial studies that are planned, Apple won’t directly collect or test DNA itself, but will leave that to its academic partners. The data will be maintained by scientists in a computing cloud, and some of their findings could appear directly on users’ iPhones. Eventually, Regalado projects, users could swipe to share their genes as easily as they share their locations.
An Apple spokeswoman didn’t provide comment for Technology Review’s report, but a person with knowledge of the plans told the publication that Apple’s objective is to “enable the individual to show and share” DNA information with various recipients, and to include organizers of scientific studies. Another source said that it’s still possible for the DNA app studies to be cancelled, while another reported that Apple wants the apps ready for the Worldwide Developers’ Conference, which will be held in June in San Francisco.
Beginning last year, Apple began offering health-related tools to users. With the latest version of its iOS mobile operating system, it introduced its Health app, which has fields for more than 70 types of health data. The company has entered into a partnership with IBM to develop apps for nurses and hospitals, as well as to mine the medical data funneled through its HealthKit framework to help companies and researchers find medically useful patterns in all of that data.
The studies that Apple is involved in shaping will collect DNA for different reasons. One, being planned by the University of California at San Francisco, will study causes of premature birth by combining genetic tests with other data collected via the iPhones of expectant mothers. Another study will be led by Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
Atul Butte, leader of the UCSF study and head of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences, said that he couldn’t comment on Apple’s involvement, but noted that the first five ResearchKit studies “have been great and are showing how fast Apple can recruit. I and many others are looking at types of trials that are more sophisticated,” per MIT Technology Review. He notes that the genetic causes of premature birth aren’t well understood, and added, “I look forward to the day when we can get more sophisticated data than activity, like DNA or clinical data.”
To join a study conducted on Apple’s platform, a user would need to have a gene test carried out, perhaps by returning a “spit kit” to a laboratory that partners with Apple. The first participating labs will reportedly be the advanced gene-sequencing centers at UCSF and Mount Sinai.
The planned DNA studies will look at 100 or fewer genes that are medically important to diseases, rather than a person’s entire genome. The targeted tests, completed at a large scale, wouldn’t cost more than a few hundred dollars each. Studies using Apple’s platform would need to be approved both by Apple and by an institutional review board, which advises researchers on studies that involve volunteer participation.
Technology Review reports that the ResearchKit program is spearheaded by Stephen Friend, a former pharmaceutical executive who’s now the head of Sage Bionetworks, which advocates for open scientific research.
Tech companies want to use apps and mobile devices to upend what Friend calls the “medical-industrial complex,” in which hospitals and research institutions keep databases of patient information to themselves, often because of privacy regulations. But individuals can share information about themselves, opening a new route to getting genetic data into consumer-facing apps as well as medical research.
With the new studies, Apple will join a short list of companies offering options for consumers looking to gain insights from their genetic data, such as Ancestry.com, the Open Humans Project, and 23andMe.
Apple’s DNA data bank could potentially grow to massive proportions thanks to the immense reach of the iPhone. But despite the potential reach of DNA studies on the ResearchKit platform, regulations make DNA data tricky to handle. Apple will also find out whether a wide variety of consumers are really interested in their genetic data.