Or saliva. Basically anything that contains your deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. Apple is teaming up with U.S. researchers to develop apps that can offer iPhone users an easy way to get their DNA tested, without going to an expensive phlebotomist (and those pesky vampires have other ideas).
These apps will be based on ResearchKit, which is a software platform Apple debuted in March that enables hospitals and scientists to run medical studies with iPhones by collecting data that users enter through their apps, or through surveys. One such app is mPower, which tracks symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and recruited thousands of users in just a few days.
Gholson Lyon, a geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory says “Apple launched ResearchKit and got a fantastic response. The obvious next thing is to collect DNA.”
Called by one man the “medical-industrial complex”, Apple wants to embed itself in the medical industry like Google, direct-to-consumer labs, and the U.S. Goverment already have.
Apple won’t collect or test DNA itself. That will be within the purview of academic partners. The data would be entered into the cloud and maintained by scientists, and certain information will be shared with iPhone users.
One person who wishes to remain anonymous says Apple’s goal is to “enable the individual to show and share” their DNA information with different recipients. It’s possible the DNA-app studies could still be canceled, but another source said Apple wants the apps ready for this year’s WWDC.
One study planned by the University of California in San Francisco wants to study causes of premature birth by combining gene tests with other data on the iPhones of expecting mothers. Atul Butte, leader of this study and head of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences says he can’t comment on Apple’s involvement but does say “The first five [ResearchKit] studies have been great and are showing how fast Apple can recruit…I look forward to the day when we can get more sophisticated data than activity, like DNA or clinical data.”
Another study called the Resilience Project, by Sage Bionetworks and Mount Sinai, wants to find out why some people are healthy even though their genes say they should be suffering from various maladies. The Project had difficulty contacting the people it collected DNA from, but finding people through iPhone apps should be a boon and make collecting data much faster.
Even companies that already offer DNA testing, like 23AndMe and Ancestry.com have trouble finding participants, whereas Apple sold 60 million iPhones in three months. Theoretically the iPhone could catapult these studies and bring millions of study participants.
The main issue with this new prospect is that many consumers may not have an interest in their DNA. Most people won’t be able to do anything with this data, and there isn’t really a common system for interpreting it. “In 10 years it could be incredibly significant,” says Lyon. “But the question is, do they have a killer app to interact with their [DNA] quickly and easily.”