Novartis Wants to See How Well ResearchKit Can Study Vision

In addition to visual acuity tests, the pharma maker's new app also asks participants to complete surveys and authorize use of their iPhone's step-counting function.

Drug giant Novartis has launched a new vison research app on Apple’s ResearchKit platform.

The FocalView app isn’t so much a mobile ophthalmology study as it is a study of how well mobile technology can be used to gather data for future ophthalmology studies. That’s a key distinction: All participants aged 18 or older, with or without eye disease, are eligible to participate so the company can build up a large database. A suite of surveys, activities, and data collection methods will help the company determine how viable and accurate the technology can be.

"Optimizing digital technology in research and development, particularly in ophthalmic disease, could have a marked impact on the quality of the data we capture," Bertrand Bodson, Novartis’s chief digital officer, said in an announcement. "We believe apps like FocalView, which we've made freely available to the research community on an open-source platform, can help accelerate the development of treatments and bring them to the patients who need them most."

>>READ: Reports of a ResearchKit Revolution May be Premature

The app features a variety of functions to gauge a user’s visual acuity. One early contrast recognition task requires the user to cover one eye and locate gaps in broken circles that display on the screen. The circles grow increasingly faint, and the user attempts to keep locating the gaps until they can no longer perceive them. The application overrules the iPhone’s user display settings, meaning it displays at the same brightness to prevent variation.

The application will collect plenty of other data—it also requests permission to use iPhone’s step counting function—and it will also gather participant-reported responses to surveys. Novartis says that it has made FocalView “freely available to the research community on an open-source platform,” and hopes to someday use its insights to develop better studies and treatments.

The app requires users to agree to a variety of consent pages about the sharing of their data before they can begin participation. “We cannot 100% guarantee confidentiality of data we collect. There is a slight risk to your privacy anytime you share personal information,” one page acknowledges.

FocalView isn’t the company’s first ResearchKit program. In September, it launched elevateMS, designed to evaluate the combined use of iPhone’s motion sensors and user-reported information in the study of multiple sclerosis. Other pharma companies are also using the technology to develop and test mobile studies: GlaxoSmithKline recently concluded a ResearchKit-based rheumatoid arthritis study that launched in 2016.

ResearchKit launched a few years ago with plenty of surrounding fanfare and lofty promises that it would revolutionize clinical research. The health-tech sphere has quickly learned that it’ll take plenty of proof-of-concept studies before the platform can truly start to change how research is conducted.

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