Harvard Chan School partners with NIH and Apple for Women’s Health Study

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Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Apple, and the National Institutes of Health announced this week a collaboration for the Apple Women’s Health Study, a large-scale longitudinal study led by a team of researchers at the Harvard Chan School that will leverage participants’ voluntary use of a smartphone research app to advance our understanding of menstrual and gynecological health.

By making use of information and study activities from personal devices, the first-of-its-kind study has the potential to become the largest and longest-running longitudinal study of women’s health. The study, focused on menstrual cycles and gynecological conditions, will inform screening and risk assessment of conditions including polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), infertility, osteoporosis, breast cancer, pregnancy complications, and menopausal transition.

“Women make up half of the world’s population, yet even today there has been limited investment in studying their unique health needs,” said Michelle A. Williams, a reproductive epidemiologist and dean of the faculty at Harvard Chan School. “This study, unprecedented in scope, will greatly advance our understanding of the biological and social determinants of women’s health, and lead to better health outcomes.”

In recent years, researchers have acknowledged the need to reevaluate the relationship of menstruation to overall health outcomes in women. Treating the menstrual cycle as a vital sign — comparable to blood pressure, temperature, pulse rate, and respiration rate — could lead to the earlier detection of many health conditions, both gynecological and systemic, as well as a better understanding of women’s reproductive health and health needs across the lifespan.

“This study represents a tremendous opportunity to bridge disciplinary domains across reproductive endocrinology, clinical epidemiology, and public health data science at Harvard,” said Michael Grusby, acting dean for academic affairs at Harvard Chan School. “Faculty and staff from across the university have come together to give their strongest possible support to the study’s principal investigators.”

Williams, Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development, will lead the study as a principal investigator, along with Harvard Chan School co-principal investigators Russ Hauser, Frederick Lee Hisaw Professor of Reproductive Physiology and chair of the Department of Environmental Health, and Brent Coull, professor of biostatistics and associate chair of the Department of Biostatistics. The other Harvard Chan School researchers are Shruthi Mahalingaiah, assistant professor of environmental reproductive and women’s health, and Jukka-Pekka Onnela, associate professor of biostatistics and director of the Master’s Program in Health Data Science. Members of the Harvard Chan School and Apple teams will be joined by colleagues from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The Apple Women’s Health Study will be part of Apple’s Research app available later this year, and is facilitated by a research agreement between Apple and Harvard’s Office of Technology Development.

“This study enables Harvard Chan researchers to vastly extend the reach of conventional data collection and analysis,” said Isaac Kohlberg, Harvard’s Chief Technology Development Officer and Senior Associate Provost. “This study is a potent example of how thoughtful collaboration between academia and industry can innovatively advance the practice of research in public health.”