Clinical Trials: There’s an App for That

With so many whizzy fitness apps out there, there’s lots of tech today designed to get us fitter and optimized.

Now scientists are getting in on the act.

Big tech players like Apple grab the headlines, when it comes to testing out mobile devices to develop digital health strategies. Launched back in 2017 the Apple Heart Study explored the performance of the Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor and accompanying algorithm in detecting potential arrhythmias.

Digital trackers have led to little change in rise in chronic illness.

So behind the scenes scientists at the lab bench are building their own apps. The idea is to design an easy-to-use app to help do the heavy lifting of clinical trials, recruit patients, and gather better data.

A typical clinical trial funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) can take up to five years. Mobile apps might help cut red tape.

Nutritional studies struggle to get patients to keep accurate food logs. Or nutrition research is criticized for not being tech savy or data-driven, but instead using general epidemiological studies.

A smartphone picture doesn’t lie. And apps could bring accurate data to nutrition studies which are typically overshadowed by drug discovery research.

But while this app looks like a fitness tracker, the endpoint isn’t weight loss or a faster running time.

Used by the research team at the Salk Lab in La Jolla, California which studies circadian rhthyms, myCircadianClock is designed for accurate data exchange between patients, doctors, and scientists.

The data is being used in time restricted (TRE) studies, and now with diabetic and hypertensive patients.

“We were surprised, people are not shy about taking photos of what they just ate for breakfast,” explains lead researcher Dr. Satchin Panda.

Going loud on social media with photos capturing your to-die-for-brunch is the new normal. And for scientists who study nutrition-sensing aging pathways, exploiting this mobile device activity could prove a boon.

By using apps chronobiology researchers hope to play the tech game to their own advantage. Because the alternative seems to be watching clinical research drown in a sea of broscience on intermittent fasting on social media.

Recently scientists wanted to know what would happen if patients ate in a ten hour window, in conjunction with taking medicine to treat cardiometabolic disease. The study was designed to use the mycircadian app to study the impact of time restricted eating (TRE) as an “add on” to statin and hypertensive medications.

The study used the myCircadianClock app to track how a ten-hour time -restricted eating window could reduce weight, blood pressure and even help treat hypertension and diabetes.

This app used the clinical setting is not about having patients post their six-pack abs to Instagram. Rather what the Salk Lab team tracks is a “feedometer”.

The “feedometer” is plot graph using the iphone photos, of exactly when meals happen.

According to Satchin Panda, many participants said that they were eating in a twelve hour window. But the “feedometer” smartphone photo plot graph, reveals that many of us eat in a fifteen hour window.

The app looks like any fitness tracker, but the science behind myCircadianClock involves decades of research.

Two major aging pathways mTor and PKA are both nutrient-sensing. Manipulating these nutrition-sensing some scientists believe, could be like hitting an epigenetic power switch.

Doctors treating diabetes and hypertension do not typically talk to their patients about using time restricted eating (TRE). But just because eating in a ten hour sounds simple, doesn’t mean it can’t turn off genes.

“The circadian system is a pillar of health,” says researcher Emily Manoogian “that has been for far too long ignored.”

Nutrition studies powered by smartphone photos are still in their infancy. But as tech-savy clinical trials continue to deliver results, time restricted eating could be an add-on to standard of care for cardiometabolic disease.