Apple Scores GlaxoSmithKline Study in Key Test of Health Apps

  • Glaxo is the first drugmaker to use Apple’s ResearchKit
  • Success of the trial will determine Glaxo’s future adoption

GlaxoSmithKline Plc has started a rheumatoid arthritis study using Apple Inc.’s 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, London-based 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.”

Building Credentials

For Apple, ResearchKit is a building block of its efforts to bolster its credentials as a provider of health technology. The Cupertino, California-based 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 health-care industry may help foster sales.

By encouraging health-care 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 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 health-care payers in the $4.6 trillion U.S. health-and-fitness industry. “Eventually you’re going to see payers rewarding you for managing your fitness and Apple is going to be in the business of delivering information that payers need.”

Research institutions including Mount Sinai Hospital, Johns Hopkins University and Duke University have already conducted studies using the ResearchKit framework, which is offered free. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment on Glaxo’s arthritis trial.

Shaping Research

Glaxo’s DiCicco said he hopes that the data from the arthritis study will help inform future clinical trials. The drugmaker may include a similar app in future studies as a supplemental tool to gather information from participants, he said, or the findings might prompt Glaxo to include different measurements in future trials.

“One thing we’ll learn is whether we made it compelling enough to make you want to interact with it every day,” DiCicco said. While acknowledging the potential shortcomings, he said that the traditional clinical trial model also has imperfections, including dealing with missing data when patients forget appointments.

The ability to reach more patients more easily is an appealing aspect of ResearchKit, according to Kara Dennis, managing director of Medidata Solutions Inc., the cloud technology company that’s collecting and analyzing data for Glaxo.

“It has the potential to greatly improve recruitment,” Dennis said in a telephone interview. “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.”

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