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Here’s how Apple, Google, and Microsoft are trying to get inside your genes-CRG in the News

Not satisfied by having our emails, chats, status updates, search histories, clicking behaviors, and shopping preferences, some of Silicon Valley’s most powerful tech titans are in an arms race to get access to your most personal information: your DNA.

Last week, for instance, the MIT Technology Review reported that Apple was looking to integrate genetic data into studies that run atop its new open-source research platform, ResearchKit. That should come as no surprise. There’s a national focus on personalized medicine, and since DNA information is becoming cheaper to get and store, the healthcare industry is hoping that personalized medicine will be part of the solution to rising costs.

Here’s a look at how three tech companies are preparing to dominate your DNA:


Apple’s ResearchKit platform may soon start integrating genetic information into its medical research efforts. The company has gone on the record saying that it’ll never see your health data. Instead, the data would most likely reside with the individual researchers whose studies were collecting DNA information. Alternately, it could be stored on servers maintained by the open-data nonprofit Sage Bionetworks, which worked with Apple to develop ResearchKit.

But the data that consumers willingly upload to HealthKit will be accessible to IBM’s Watson AI, according to InformationWeek:
As IBM receives Apple’s data, it will de-identify and store it in a secure and scalable cloud system. Researchers, doctors, and other health professionals will be able to view and share the data, as well as access data-mining and predictive analytics capabilities.

Applying artificial intelligence algorithms to health data, experts say, is where healthcare is heading. But because different types of data are often collected in disparate ways, drawing insights from it all is difficult. Apple, with the help of IBM, seems to be tackling that problem. And if they succeed, your iPhone and Apple Watch could become cutting-edge medical devices.


Google has been investing in DNA-related companies, like 23andMe and DNAnexus, for years. More recently, the search giant offered cheap storage space to hospitals for their DNA data, through a new product called Google Genetics. For just $25 a year, a hospital could store a single copy of a person’s genome, according to the MIT Technology Review.

Doing analysis on that data will cost more, but that’s ultimately where the real value is — and where companies like Google could offer services that even some labs at at top-notch universities can’t afford. For years, the search giant has been recruiting experts in artificial intelligence to make sense of the world’s data. Deep learning is a subfield of artificial intelligence that’s especially good at pattern recognition, and it could help Google make inroads into serious life sciences research. In March, the company announced in a blog post that it would use its deep learning know-how for drug discovery. .

“Rather than just skimming the genome using superficial statistics,” Brendan Frey, an AI researcher at the University of Toronto who recently published a paper in the journal Science on using deep learning for genetic analysis, told me a few weeks ago, “the future lies in deep statistical analysis, also called deep learning, which will be used to find more profound patterns that relate elements in the genome to cellular activities and disease.”

Google’s medical efforts don’t end at DNA deep learning, though. The company has been on the hunt for synthetic chemists, and its research lab, Google X, is working on contact lenses that track glucose levels, in collaboration with pharmaceutical giant Novartis, and wristbands that can detect cancer cells.


Microsoft has been in the business of analyzing genetic information for some time, with products like HealthVault, an attempt at creating a health-data platform for consumers and doctors. The Cambridge branch of its research lab has an entire group dedicated to bioinformatics. Through collaborations with research organizations like MIT and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, it’s developed several algorithms to try to tease out how environmental factors, like smoking or sunbathing, affect genetic predisposition to disease.

Microsoft is also leading the way on securing the DNA data it gathers. At the 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference, Kristin Lauter, who heads up Microsoft’s cryptography research, discussed an encryption method she was developing, dubbed homomorphic encryption, that allows for scientists to encrypt genetic data, while letting researchers do experiments on it. She explained the technology to the Council for Responsible Genetics:
The primary new functionality enabled with homomorphic encryption is the ability to compute on encrypted data. This is very important for things like outsourcing storage and computation of data. The idea is that when using homomorphic encryption, the data owner – let’s say it’s a consumer or an enterprise – could encrypt the data locally and keep the key. Then they can upload that data to the cloud, and if they used homomorphic encryption, that data can still be operated on by the cloud and the encrypted results are available from the cloud to the data owner or anyone the data owner trusts to share the encryption key with. So it really allows a whole new functionality on encrypted data.

As she alludes to, this kind of technology could be useful for things like cloud-based medical records, another product Microsoft has worked on in the past.

Who will win?

None of this is purely charitable, of course. The tech company that wins the DNA research war will also make a fortune from selling its stores of data to pharmaceutical companies, research labs, and other buyers. The potential market for sequencing-driven treatments in oncology alone could be greater than $2 billion by 2018, according to a recent report by the consultancy McKinsey & Company. And the personalized-medicine market as a whole is estimated to be worth upwards of $230 billion, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

So while you’re having your DNA sequenced and stored by a tech company, just remember: you may be getting some valuable insights about your health profile, but the company is making bank off your biology.

Daniela Hernandez , Fusion

Apple Has Plans for Your DNA

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.

Sophisticated data

Starting last year, Apple began taking steps to make its devices indispensable for “digital health.” Its latest version of the iOS operating system includes an app called Health, which has fields for more than 70 types of health data—everything from your weight to how many milligrams of manganese you eat (as yet, there’s no field for your genome). Apple also entered a partnership with IBM to develop health apps for nurses and hospitals, as well as to mine medical data.

Now Apple is closely involved in shaping initial studies that will collect DNA. One, planned by the University of California, San Francisco, would study causes of premature birth by combining gene tests with other data collected on the phones of expectant mothers. A different study would be led by Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Atul Butte, leader of the UCSF study and head of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences, said he could not comment on Apple’s involvement. “The first five [ResearchKit] studies have been great and are showing how fast Apple can recruit. I and many others are looking at types of trials that are more sophisticated,” Butte says. Noting that the genetic causes of premature birth aren’t well understood, he says, “I look forward to the day when we can get more sophisticated data than activity, like DNA or clinical data.”

To join one of the studies, a person would agree to have a gene test carried out—for instance, by returning a “spit kit” to a laboratory approved by Apple. The first such labs are said to be the advanced gene-sequencing centers operated by UCSF and Mount Sinai.

The planned DNA studies would look at 100 or fewer medically important disease genes (known as a “gene panel”), not a person’s entire genome.

These targeted tests, if done at large scale, would not cost more than a few hundred dollars each.

Like the ResearchKit apps released so far, the studies would be approved by Apple and by an institutional review board, a type of oversight body that advises researchers on studies involving volunteers.

The ResearchKit program has been spearheaded by Stephen Friend, a onetime pharmaceutical company executive and now the head of Sage Bionetworks, a nonprofit that advocates for open scientific research.

Friend’s vision for a data “commons” in which study subjects are active participants in scientific research was enthusiastically embraced by Apple starting in 2013. Friend, whom Apple describes as a medical technology advisor, declined an interview request through an assistant.

Silicon Valley companies are intent on using apps and mobile devices to overrun what Friend has called the “medical-industrial complex.” The problem is that hospitals and research groups are notorious for hoarding data, in many cases because they are legally bound to do so by state and federal privacy regulations. But no law stops individuals from sharing information about themselves. Thus one reason to “empower patients,” as rhetoric has it, is that if people collect their own data, or are given control of it, it could quickly find wide use in consumer apps and technologies, as well as in science.

One study that could get a boost from the iPhone is the Resilience Project, a joint undertaking by Sage and Mount Sinai to discover why some people are healthy even though their genes say they should have serious inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis. That project has already scoured DNA data previously collected from more than 500,000 people, and as of last year it had identified about 20 such unusual cases. But the Resilience Project was having difficulty contacting those people because their DNA had been collected anonymously. By contrast, recruiting people through iPhone apps could make ongoing contact easy.

Hard to handle

By playing this role in gene studies, Apple would join a short list of companies trying to excite people about what they might do with their own genetic information. Among them are the genealogy company Ancestry.com, the Open Humans Project, and 23andMe, a direct-to-consumer testing company that has collected DNA profiles of more than 900,000 people who bought its $99 spit kits.

That is one of the largest DNA data banks anywhere, but it took 23andMe nine years of constant media attention, such as appearance on Oprah, to reach those numbers. By comparison, Apple sold 60 million iPhones in just the first three months of this year, contributing to a total of about 750 million overall. That means DNA studies on the ResearchKit platform could, theoretically, have rapid and immense reach.

But DNA data remains tricky to handle, and in some cases what people can be told about it is regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

One study launched this year by the University of Michigan, Genes for Good, uses a Facebook app to recruit subjects and carry out detailed surveys about their health and habits. In that study, participants will be sent a spit kit and will later gain access to DNA information via a file they can download to their desktops.

So far about 4,200 people have signed up, says Gonçalo Abecasis, the geneticist running the research. Abecasis says that the project will tell people something about their ancestry but won’t try to make health predictions. “There is tension in figuring out what is okay as part of our research study and what would be okay in terms of health care,” he says. “You can imagine that a lot of people have a good idea how to interpret the DNA … but what is appropriate to disclose isn’t clear.”

One issue facing Apple is whether consumers are even interested in their DNA. So far, most people still have no real use for genetic data, and common systems for interpreting it are lacking as well. “In 10 years it could be incredibly significant,” says Lyon, the Cold Spring Harbor geneticist. “But the question is, do they have a killer app to interact with their [DNA] quickly and easily.”

Some people have ideas. Imagine you could swipe your genes at a drugstore while filling a prescription, getting a warning if you’re predicted to have a reaction to the drug. Or perhaps an app could calculate exactly how closely related you are to anyone else. But Lyon believes that right now the story is mostly about helping researchers.

“They need people to donate their DNA,” he says. “One incentive is to have it on their phone where they can play with it.”

Antonio Regalado , MIT Technology Review

IBM and Apple want to share how you are with others

IBM has launched a health unit to make sense of the wealth of data created by the boom in fitness trackers and apps.

Watson Health aims to create “a secure, cloud-based data sharing hub” that can feed analytic technologies, it said.

It could provide diagnoses or health alerts which could also be sent to doctors, carers, or insurers for example, with the user’s permission.

IBM has teamed up with Apple and wants to launch “new employee health and wellness management solutions”.

The company says it is buying two firms to help with its goal: Explorys which has one of the largest healthcare databases in the world and Phytel that works with digital medical record systems to reduce hospital readmissions and automate communications.

IBM says it wants to provide “individualised insights and a more complete picture of the many factors that can affect people’s health”.

Privacy concerns

There has been concern over personal technology being used to help diagnose an individual’s condition.

In the US, some apps that claimed to diagnose cancer, for example, have been criticised by the Federal Trade Commission.

There is also concern over the sharing of health data. Companies including Jawbone are talking to firms about how personal fitness trackers could be used to monitor a workforce.

Christopher Coughlan, a UK solicitor who has written on the subject advises bosses considering such a move to be careful:

“If you rely on consent it must be freely given. This means a worker must be able to say ‘no’ without a penalty being imposed and must be able to withdraw consent once given.

“A person is more likely to be in this position at the recruitment stage than when they are employed.”

Insurers are also interested in monitoring customers. UK health insurance firm Vitality is incentivising policy-holders to take up a more active lifestyle by offering rewards for certain tasks that can be tracked through personal fitness devices.

GP welcomes move

GP Dr Ellie Cannon welcomed the move by IBM:

“It is always difficult to gauge how much exercise or calories a patient is describing and this is an accurate way to know.

“On a larger scale… the data could provide evidence to back up or dispute well-known health claims such as how much sleep we need or which exercise is most effective.”

That could be aided by Apple’s announcement today that its ResearchKit software that helps gather health data from iPhones is now available to anyone.

It’s already been used to develop apps to study asthma, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, says Apple.

Dan Simmons, BBC