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Drug Trials Are Coming To An iPhone Near You

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIC RISBERG
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIC RISBERG

Two of the world’s top pharmaceutical companies are looking to Apple users for their next drug trials.

GlaskoSmithKline (GSK) and Purdue Pharma are planning to roll out clinical drug trials using ResearchKit, Apple’s open-source app software that lets the scientists and medical researchers conduct and keep track of clinical trial subjects through their smartphones.

According to a Buzzfeed report, clinical trials with GSK, which produces popular asthma drugs Adair and Flovent, are being developed and the company is “currently working on integrating (ResearchKit) into clinical trials and planning to start in coming months.”

Privately-owned, OxyContin creator Purdue Pharma is also on board with ResearchKit concept but hasn’t yet committed to building an app to run a clinical trial.

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“We know that all these changes in tech are going to impact health care, but we don’t know exactly how,” Purdue CIO and vice president, Larry Pickett, Jr., told Buzzfeed. “People have been talking about it for a long time, but haven’t been able to figure out how to leverage that data and take advantage of it. My team views ResearchKit as a very significant milestone in being able to move that capability ahead.”

Apple received much praise when it released ResearchKit in April, particularly because of its potential to diversify clinical trials.

A 2014 study revealed that clinical trials are overwhelmingly white, with less than 5 percent of trial participants being people of color. The disparity is particularly stark when it comes to researching and treating disease processes that affect black women, who are 40 percent more likely to develop breast cancer, but only 1.3 percent of African Americans participate in clinical trials overall — despite making up 12 percent of the population.

ResearchKit could make it easier for medical researchers and drug companies to close the representation gap. Nearly two thirds of American adults own a smartphone, according to a recent Pew Internet survey.

For many of those adults, smartphones are their primary method to access the internet and predominantly affects low-income individuals and people of color. Thirteen percent of Americans who earn less than $30,000 a year are completely dependent on smartphones for internet access. Only 4 percent of white people depend on smartphones to go online compared to 12 percent of African Americans and 13 percent of Latinos.

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But while using a smartphone based framework such as ResearchKit could be statistically helpful in diversifying clinical trials and improving outcomes, it could also hinder those efforts. Apple customers skew white, are educated, and typically earn higher salaries — a fact that could cancel out the benefits of making clinical trials accessible through mobile devices.