Back in March, Apple announced ResearchKit, a software platform that hospitals and scientists can use to run medical studies on iPhones. Today, Apple is announcing the second phase of the plan: a collaboration with researchers to build apps with ResearchKit that will let some iPhone users test their DNA, says MIT Technology Review.
While the ResearchKit software can collect data using the iPhone’s sensors, the consumer-facing DNA apps Apple is building with researchers won’t directly collect or test DNA using the iPhone–they’ll just use data collected by the academic half of the partnership and deliver that data to users via the iPhone apps. But down the line, these apps could let users share their DNA data just like iPhone users share their locations now, says MIT Technology Review.
A source told MIT Technology Review that users could then share their genetic data with scientific studies themselves at the users’ discretion. This follows the trend to personally track more and more health data, but it’s also cause for concern as biometrics become more valuable parts of the data economy. The MIT Technology Review report, for example, notes that the DNA data for the apps will be held by scientists “in a computing cloud”—which connotes an internal, local, server-based cloud—but the report does not mention specific measures that might be taken in the event of a cybersecurity threat.
There’s no question that genomics is a growing industry that is still waiting to be harnessed for financial gain—and still has some challenges ahead to grapple with. Consumer-facing genetics analysis firm 23andMe, for example, spent nine years partnering with academic and research groups to grow a DNA bank from 900,000 individuals. While the company initially made solid revenue from its $99 spit-and-send consumer genetic testing kits, the FDA suspended 23andMe’s genetic analysis of those test kits, drastically reducing their usefulness. To monetize its analysis methods and stay financially solvent, 23andMe has sold anonymized chunks of its vast genetics data bank to research institutions and pharmaceutical companies–but their genetics data bank is still less than a million people.
Apple obviously doesn’t have to worry about selling health data to stay afloat, having sold 60 million iPhones in Q1 2015. Instead, its ResearchKit apps represent another means of becoming even more intimate with its loyal legion of customers.