To the ever-growing list of things smartphones can put at your fingertips (weather, traffic, games, stock quotes), Apple aims to add "relieve suffering" and "advance science."
Two local researchers who were part of the team that created the company's new breast cancer iPhone application, called Share the Journey, believe that those lofty goals are realistic.
Apple enlisted Kathryn Schmitz, an epidemiologist and exercise physiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Marisa Weiss, a Lankenau Hospital breast radiation oncologist, who founded and leads the resource website breastcancer.org. Weiss herself was treated for the malignancy four years ago.
"The more we know," Weiss said, "the more we can help women know what to expect after treatment is finished, and help them avoid or minimize side effects."
Share the Journey was unveiled two weeks ago as part of an Apple open-source software platform, called ResearchKit, that is seeking iPhone users who have asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or Parkinson's. Apple's initiative is part of the growing trend of mining consumer-generated information and electronic health records to try to speed scientific discoveries.
Share the Journey will use questionnaires and collect data through the iPhone's accelerometer, gyroscope, and other features to better understand five common symptoms that can persist long after breast-cancer treatment ends: fatigue, mood shifts, cognitive changes, sleep disturbances, and changes in exercise.
"I see women who say, 'I feel like I aged 10 years in that one year' " of treatment, Schmitz said. "One solution is exercise. We know people stop moving during treatment, and they really shouldn't. We need to rebuild their strength."
Breastcancer.org, with 200,000 registered users and millions of visitors worldwide, is helping to recruit participants for Share the Journey, Weiss said.
Based on users' feedback, researchers may design additional apps to study other posttreatment problems. Schmitz, for example, has been working on an app to track tissue swelling, or lymphedema, a well-known complication in women whose underarm lymph nodes are removed.
Other miserable side effects are common with the antiestrogen drug tamoxifen. It lowers the risk of recurrence, but is typically prescribed for a full five years.
"Hot flashes, moodiness, vaginal dryness - those tamoxifen side effects interfere with compliance," Weiss said. "I stuck with it because I'm afraid of recurrence. I think one of the biggest promises of this app is a better understanding of what keeps women on or off medications that . . . can help save their lives."
The smartphone innovation is already raising concerns and questions. Will the data be reliable? What about security and privacy issues? If women don't quickly reap individual benefits - and they may not - will they lose interest and quit?
Still, experts welcome the chance to supplement and shortcut traditional studies, which tend to be time-consuming, costly, and relatively small.
Recently, Schmitz said, the esteemed UCLA breast cancer researcher Susan Love used social media to ask survivors about the "collateral damage" of treatment. One surprise emerged from women who had taken Herceptin, a vital therapy for a particularly aggressive type of breast cancer.
"They complained about rhinnorhea - constant dripping of their nose," Schmitz said. "We really don't know what the issues are."