Drug discovery and development involves so many elements that this industry requires advanced information technology. The question is: What technology does the best job? The short answer: a combination of electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) and a laboratory information management system (LIMS). A specific user’s needs, however, impact just what an ELN or LIMS should do.
Before getting to solutions, let’s consider the challenges. When asked to describe the information technology concerns in today’s drug discovery and development, Dominic John, PhD, product marketing director at Accelrys (San Diego, Calif.), says that it is “externalizing fully integrated pharmas.” That requires the ability to effectively capture, coordinate, and share information between companies, such as a pharmaceutical company and a contract research organization (CRO). “The combination of electronic information held in LIMS and ELNs provides essential insight into research and operations, as well as a means to share collaborative information more effectively in an electronically captured format when compared to traditional paper processes,” John says.
Users can select from a range of options in ELNs and LIMS. Moreover, controls provide easier avenues to customization than in the past, and users can access the systems through new platforms, including smartphones, or tablets.
Advances in ELNs
Data can be structured, such a table of numbers, or unstructured, like a written description of an experiment. “On an ELN, you can capture all types of data, structured and unstructured,” says Richard Stember, chief executive officer at LABTrack (Lake Forest, Calif.). “These are the data that would go in a paper lab notebook.”
LABTrack can capture data directly from instruments or a scientist can input information manually. “It’s designed to work like a word processor,” Stember says. “You can type in summaries or copy and paste from other applications.” Researchers can also make templates with LABTrack that serve as forms to capture experimental data. The software can be loaded on a Windows- or Mac-based system, a tablet or pad device, or LABTrack’s Personal/Q1ELN platform. “You can even draw on the page if you’re using a tablet that supports that,” Stember says.
To find out how an ELN might work in a particular situation, Jeff Spitzner, chief scientific officer at Rescentris (Redwood City, Calif.), a division of ELN Technologies, says, “You have to ask the user a few questions.” He points out that people doing discovery work might need more record keeping and ways to collaborate. “You also want to enable creativity at that stage,” he adds. “In biotech and pharma research, scientists capture records for intellectual property. For development and beyond, the FDA requires reporting as well.” Spitzner adds that the Rescentris technology aims at “any research stages and up through early development.” Moreover, this platform comes in versions for PCs, Macs, and the iPad, as well as in a Web-based client. The company even provides hosted offerings.
Launching a LIMS
According to Jay Ross, senior product manager, Starlims (Hollywood, Fla.), an Abbott company, “Companies are looking for a LIMS to track activities that a lab auditor will look for, or to increase efficiency in the lab.” He notes that a LIMS can integrate with instrumentation in a lab as well as with a company’s other data systems, such as a clinical trial-management system or a manufacturing-execution system.
When thinking about how to help a customer launch a LIMS, Shooki Grasiani, senior product manager at Starlims, says, “There’s no one way to do things. A LIMS must be tuned to a customer’s needs and problems.” Overall, a LIMS can perform many tasks: managing plates and the workflow in a lab, keeping track of instrument certification, and much more.
Trish Meek, product strategist for life sciences at Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, Mass.), says, “Many customers have already implemented a LIMS and are looking to ELNs to complement their existing LIMS solution. LIMS emulates the lab workflow and drives the laboratory process, while providing the ability to manage the laboratory at a higher level.” Instrument integration represents one of the key benefits of LIMS. Thermo Scientific Integration Manager and Data Manager take not only the final results but also the raw data from most any instrument—connecting samples and results.
“We have customers who are happy with just employing a LIMS, and that provides what they need, but we also have customers who would benefit from both a LIMS and ELN,” Meek says. “We work with customers to help them understand their requirements and choose the right informatics solutions to meet their needs.”
Although everyone in a company is working towards a common goal, their indivual roles require a variety of different technologies. As Spitzner says, “Even in a given organization, different people work in different ways with different tools.” As an example, he says, “Typically, one scientist uses one program to analyze gene sequences, and another uses a different program. We make sure that they can use any program that they like.”
The Rescentris CERF software works with various file formats, including data from instrumentation and productivity software, such as Microsoft Office. This system also grabs data collected and analyzed by a LIMS. With data or images loaded in the ELN, a user can even annotate the pages, like adding notes to a paper lab notebook.
In the transition from discovering a new therapeutic to making it, companies use information to connect the steps. “In the development cycle, says John Helfrich, vice president, GMP automation programs at VelQuest (Hopkinton, Mass.), a subsidiary of Accelrys, “you gather information that’s valuable to manufacturing operations. You learn what parameters to adjust to get the product back in line. This is the primary requirement for quality-by-design initiatives in life science companies.” For example, VelQuest designed its SmartLab gmpELN and gmpLIMS applications specifically for manufacturing and quality operations. “It’s already integrated with 90% of the instruments used for quality control,” says Helfrich.
Many experts do not see tomorrow—or today—as ELNs versus LIMS, but rather one helping the other. For example, John from Accelrys says, “A researcher can use an ELN to design an experiment and designate samples to analyze and then push that off to a LIMS, and later return the summary results to the ELN for completion of their sample or experiment documentation.” He adds, “If you’re doing lots of repetitive manual steps between the systems that are prone to transcription errors, it makes sense to integrate the ELN with your LIMS.”
Many of the experts interviewed agree that these technology platforms work best in tandem. Starlims makes a LIMS and ELN, and Grasiani says, “A LIMS by itself or an ELN by itself is not the complete solution. Combining them yields a synergy, and that becomes really powerful.”
Stember agrees, saying, “One is not a replacement for the other.” Then he adds, “They are very distinct products and quite complementary.” At Thermo Fisher Scientific, Meek and her colleagues also see LIMS and ELNs working in concert.
These technologies give researchers far more control over work in drug discovery and development. Furthermore, these IT platforms help drug makers accelerate along the pipeline by keeping better track of what worked and what failed. The information collected at one stage can be readily accessed and applied to the downstream decision-making process. Integrating IT with discovery and development also helps with future issues related to intellectual property and regulatory processes. This technology connects and completes many loops.
About the author
Mike May is a publishing consultant for science and technology based in Austin, Texas.