Apple Has Plans for Your DNA
The iPhone could become a new tool in genetic studies.
Of all the rumors ever to swirl around the world’s most valuable company, this may be the first that could involve spitting in a plastic cup.
Apple is collaborating with U.S. researchers to launch apps that would offer some iPhone owners the chance to get their DNA tested, many of them for the first time, according to people familiar with the plans.
The apps are based on ResearchKit, a software platform Apple introduced in March that helps hospitals or scientists run medical studies on iPhones by collecting data from the devices’ sensors or through surveys.
The first five ResearchKit apps, including one called mPower that tracks symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, quickly recruited thousands of participants in a few days, demonstrating the reach of Apple’s platform.
“Apple launched ResearchKit and got a fantastic response. The obvious next thing is to collect DNA,” says Gholson Lyon, a geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who isn’t involved with the studies.
Nudging iPhone owners to submit DNA samples to researchers would thrust Apple’s devices into the center of a widening battle for genetic information. Universities, large technology companies like Google (see “Google Wants to Store Your Genome”), direct-to-consumer labs, and even the U.S. government (see “U.S. to Develop DNA Study of One Million People”) are all trying to amass mega-databases of gene information to uncover clues about the causes of disease (see “Internet of DNA”).
In two initial studies planned, Apple isn’t going to directly collect or test DNA itself. That will be done by academic partners. The data would be maintained by scientists in a computing cloud, but certain findings could appear directly on consumers’ iPhones as well. Eventually, it’s even possible consumers might swipe to share “my genes” as easily as they do their location.
An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment. But one person with knowledge of the plans said the company’s eventual aim is to “enable the individual to show and share” DNA information with different recipients, including organizers of scientific studies. This person, like others with knowledge of the research, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the company’s insistence on secrecy.
One of these people said the DNA-app studies could still be cancelled, but another said Apple wants the apps ready for the company’s worldwide developers’ conference, to be held in June in San Francisco.