GlaxoSmithKline Taps Apple’s ResearchKit for Arthritis Study

GlaxoSmithKline PLC (London) has started a rheumatoid arthritis study using Apple Inc.’s (Cupertino CA) ResearchKit, marking the first time a drugmaker has used the health system for the iPhone to conduct clinical research.

Glaxo wants to record the mobility of 300 participants over three months and will also ask the patients to input both physical and emotional symptoms, such as pain and mood.

The app Glaxo created from ResearchKit comes with a guided wrist exercise that uses the phone’s sensors to record motion, giving the drugmaker a standardized measurement across all users.

The company will use the results to help design better clinical trials. The success of the study could help determine the pharmaceutical industry’s future appetite for using Apple’s products to conduct research.

Drugmakers have to balance the lower costs of using the app with their ability to gather accurate, reliable data. Risks include that test subjects will tire of entering information into the app, and, given the iPhone’s $399 starting price, the sample may be skewed toward wealthier demographics.

By using ResearchKit, Glaxo may be able to reduce research costs, which can stretch into the millions of dollars. Observational trials, such as this one, can take months or even years to recruit and enroll patients, said Rob DiCicco, head of Glaxo’s clinical innovation and digital platforms group.

“Certainly you’ve also taken out the site costs, and the costs of having nurses and physicians explaining the studies to them and recording information.”

For Apple, ResearchKit is a building block of its efforts to bolster its credentials as a provider of health technology. The company is increasingly promoting its Apple Watch as a health and fitness accessory–in addition to a built-in pedometer, the device can measure heart rate–and has been quietly hiring a team of engineers and scientists with a background in health care.

Apple sold 13.9 million watches last year, according to IDC. That pales in comparison to the 231 million iPhones it shipped, so building relationships with the healthcare industry may help foster sales.

By encouraging healthcare providers and drugmakers to offer services through its products, Apple could continue to build customer loyalty to its iPhones, iPads and computers by maintaining their health and fitness data in the company’s devices and make it difficult to move to competing systems from Alphabet Inc.’s Google (Mountain View CA) and others.

“Apple is saying ‘let’s make it easier for you to use our products so that consumers can become more dependent on them,’” said Yuri Teshler, an analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy.

Apple’s ability to encourage users to track their health and wellness, he said, will attract insurance companies and other healthcare payers in the $4.6 trillion U.S. health-and-fitness industry.

Steve’s Take: Apple and GlaxoSmithKline; strange bedfellows? It’s 5,388 miles, or 11 hours travel time, between sunny Cupertino and foggy London. But let’s hold that thought for now.

Apple’s ResearchKit was quickly adopted for clinical studies at several universities and hospitals, but the new iOS app focused on rheumatoid arthritis from Glaxo marks the first time a drug company has made use of the framework.

According to a report by Caroline Chen for Bloomberg, Glaxo will be using ResearchKit to monitor physical symptoms and record pain and mood feedback in the rheumatoid arthritis study described above.

Clinical studies can cost millions of dollars due to the expenses related to finding and recruiting participants, bringing them into a facility, and paying nurses and doctors to explain the study to the participants, obtain their consent and then collect data from them over the duration of the study.

I can easily see how ResearchKit apps can help pharma companies reduce those costs by enabling participants to enroll themselves, presenting study details to the user, obtaining their consent and automating standardized data collection that participants can contribute from home. All of that is time consuming and costly for the pharmas.

ResearchKit studies can also greatly expand the number of participants that can be recruited to join a study, and accelerate the pace of its research. A cardiovascular study at Stanford attracted 10,000 participants last year, shortly after Apple announced the new initiative.

Kara Dennis, a managing director at Medidata Solutions, the firm collecting and analyzing research data for Glaxo, noted that ResearchKit “has the potential to greatly improve recruitment,” explaining that “one of the biggest challenges in clinical trials is that it’s hard to engage patients because they might have to take time off work, they often have to travel significant distances and then they’re subjected to a series of measures that can be invasive.”

Apple’s recent push has made health a major initiative at the company, expanding upon ResearchKit with a complementary new CareKit framework designed to facilitate apps to help guide patients through follow-up care.

Its internal health-related initiatives also now include a strategic extension of its IBM partnership to provide secure real-time data analytics to medical professionals, with participation from Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic. Apple also expanded support for DNA genetics results in participation with 23andMe.

But what’s really behind this push by Apple into healthcare? Simply put, it’s Apple’s iOS smartphone platform. Although Apple finished 2015 as the No. 1 brand market-sharewise in both the U.S. and China, iOS has lost share to Google’s Android in both markets.

Carolina Milanesi, senior analysts at market research firm Creative Strategies, suggests that what we’re seeing in the U.S. might be merely a product of smartphone saturation.

“The U.S. market continues to be very competitive as smartphone penetration reached 65% among mobile phone users and 84% of overall mobile phone sales,” she writes. “The pool of available new buyers is shrinking and Android’s wider price range helps them grab late adopters looking for their first smartphone.”

This is all about Apple and it’s Bay Area neighbor Google, again. Just 6.3 miles, and a mere 11 minutes away in Mountain View, but as cutthroat, wily and committed a competitor as there is. In the near future I foresee a lot more frequent-flyer miles being racked up between San Francisco, Europe and China.