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Pharma, Data Veteran Stephen Friend Bites At Apple’s Health Offer

Xconomy Seattle — 

Consumer tech giant Apple, which has spent considerable effort positioning its products as health and fitness helpers, has just hired someone who knows Big Pharma and Big Data. Stephen Friend, a veteran of drug R&D and, more recently, a nonprofit effort to foster more collaborative biomedical research and more data sharing, is joining Apple (NYSE: AAPL) in an unspecified capacity.

The news emerged today from Sage Bionetworks, the Seattle nonprofit that Friend founded after leaving drug giant Merck (NYSE: MRK), where he was a senior research executive for eight years. Friend joined Merck in 2001 when it bought his Seattle biotech Rosetta Inpharmatics, which used genetic analysis in drug research and development.

Sage posted a short announcement on its website today about its new president, Lara Mangravite, and noted that Friend will move from president to chairman of the board and no longer be responsible for daily operations. “Dr. Friend has accepted a position with Apple Inc. where he will work on health related projects,” the site says. The move is effective immediately, Sage director of strategic development Thea Norman confirmed to Xconomy. Norman said she did not know the specifics of Friend’s new job. Friend and Apple representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Friend’s move to Apple is not out of the blue. Under Friend, Sage has been a major contributor to Apple’s ResearchKit initiative, which allows iPhone users to share personal health data with medical researchers. It’s part of a broader movement to gain deeper health insights through the analysis of big data, often gathered from citizens willing to share their own records. Privacy and consent remain difficult questions, both ethically and technologically. Companies must also wrestle with compensation; should people who donate their data get a slice of the profits when those data lead to products?

Sage built some of the behind-the-scenes software for ResearchKit, as well as two of the five apps that debuted with ResearchKit last year: one to study Parkinson’s disease, another to study the survivors of breast cancer. Friend is the principal investigator, or top researcher, for both studies. Sage has also begun using Apple’s CareKit, which delivers feedback to patients about their conditions.

Sage has been an advocate of more data sharing, building data infrastructure for various projects like the Resilience Project, which aims to study people who remain healthy despite having genetic variants that usually drive disease. Friend has also been vocal about changing the way patients should be treated in the healthcare system. Right now that relationship is “feudal,” he said during a precision medicine forum last year at the University of California, San Francisco. Patients—or as he prefers to say, “participants”—are “subjects” who are poked, prodded and mined for their data, he said.

He called the ResearchKit initiative a good start toward a “participant-centered model,” and noted how the user gets a clear, simple consent option before any health data are transmitted. (Here is the consent form for the Parkinson’s app.)

ResearchKit made headlines last year when tens of thousands of people signed up to use the apps right out of the gate. But it has spurred many questions, as well, about reliability of self-reported data and about bias, seeing how everyone contributing is wealthy and technologically savvy enough to use an iPhone.