Updated on 7 March 2015
Despite the extensive potential of smartphones, progress in the biomedical sector has been sluggish
Singapore: Mobile apps have invaded almost every aspect of life, yet few are relevant for biomedical experimental research. The entry of few mobile apps targeted at experimental processes promise to revolutionize biomedical research, greatly increasing the convenience of analyzing experiments and potentially displacing certain lab equipment with the smartphone. In anticipation of this progress towards a mobile experimental lab, we surveyed two popular mobile app stores - Google Play Store and Apple App Store and identified the type of apps useful for biomedical research. We also discussed the potential of incorporating the smartphone in biomedical research through the use of apps, and the obstacles to such a development.
Two decades ago, the first smartphones took the world by storm with revolutionary features like email and web browsing. Augmented by quantum leaps in computing technology, the smartphone of today acts as a mini computer with various operating systems. Most notably, smartphones and tablets with the Android (by Google) and iOS (by Apple) operating systems attract the most users, resulting in more than 1.3 million apps being developed for the Google Play Store and Apple App Store respectively. These apps have crept into almost every aspect of modern life, in areas such as transport, social networking, education, and entertainment, but have barely penetrated into research, especially in the biomedical field.
Amongst the plethora of apps, biomedical researchers may find some apps relevant to their research in the categories of "clinical" and "medical tools". However, apps directly relevant to experimental processes are scarce, as pointed out in a recent editorial.
As of late 2014, we found over 1,327 apps on Google Play Store and more than 1,462 apps on Apple App Store using keywords related to biomedical research ("bioinformatics", "DNA", "protein", "genomes", "colonies", and "genes"). Of these, only around 56 apps are directly relevant to biomedical research. These include: 25 native apps used for lab processes; 19 hybrid apps for repository information; and 14 apps for education and reference purposes.
The rise of the mobile lab
Beyond information dissemination and accessibility, scientists would benefit most from native biomedical apps that are directly involved in laboratory processes. With just a gyroscope, camera, and touch screen, a smartphone can be transformed into convenient portable lab equipment (data analyzers, spectrophotometers, cell and colony counters, gel analyzers and others) through the installation of native apps to enhance research productivity and save costs on expensive equipment. For example, GelApp (for Android) and MyGels (for iOS) can transform the smartphone into a pocket gel documentation system for DNA and protein gel analysis. With such apps, future reports of nucleic acid/protein bands can routinely be accompanied by band sizes, augmenting research reproducibility and accuracy towards quantitative biology.