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Never Set Foot in the Lab Again: Perform Research in a Cloud Lab

Never Set Foot in the Lab Again: Perform Research in a Cloud Lab content piece image
A mock-up of the new cloud lab facility at Carnegie Mellon University. Credit: Emerald Cloud Lab
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Imagine never having to trudge through the daily grind of lab work ever again. Instead of spending your day pipetting samples, repairing broken instruments, or searching for missing data among your files, imagine dedicating all your time to designing experiments, interpreting the results, and advancing your research.

For centuries, scientists have had to play the roles of researcher, lab manager and technician. The time and cost of building, operating, and maintaining a laboratory slowed down their work and limited their ability to fully explore their research questions. Cloud laboratories bypass these limitations, freeing scientists to follow their ideas without experiencing the daily hassle of running, stocking, managing, and maintaining a lab.

Today, the best-equipped cloud labs offer a full range of capabilities that enable researchers to perform any basic experiment, from molecular biology to biochemistry, through a software interface they can access from anywhere. Researchers simply ship their samples to a remote laboratory, submit their experimental protocols online, and receive their results in a clean and usable format. True cloud labs can completely replace physical laboratories. They offer a myriad of benefits, from cost savings to lower capital burden, increased throughput, and unparalleled access to equipment, for scientists at universities, pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations (CRO) all over the world.

Advancing academic research

Many businesses today operate on the cloud, and now, the technology is available for academic institutions to do the same with their research labs. Moving research to the cloud offers many benefits to academic researchers, from cost savings to enabling them to train a new generation of more well-rounded scientists that are better equipped for the future.

First, a cloud lab gives researchers who have limited funding or lab space access to the instruments and equipment necessary to advance their fields of study. Plus, with its principal investigators performing their research remotely, a university can save on the construction, maintenance, and energy costs associated with physical lab space. Furthermore, as the world continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, cloud labs enable students, faculty, and staff to keep learning and performing experiments seamlessly from home.

Perhaps more importantly, access to a cloud lab enables academic institutions to elevate their research programs. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is constructing
a cloud lab on their campus right now to reduce barriers to scientific research, enabling their students and faculty to rapidly bring their ideas into the lab and follow where the science takes them. The flexibility and access that cloud labs provide make the approach an attractive option for universities seeking to stretch funding further and build a more effective and impactful learning environment for their students. Not only can students access the lab from anywhere in the world, but the process of running experiments online enables them to learn the basics of coding and gives them more opportunities to collaborate with data scientists, providing them with skill sets that will serve them in an increasingly digital future.

Accelerating drug development

Pharmaceutical companies, too, are seeking to accelerate their research and development projects. Their goal is to bring their products to market as quickly as possible.

Cloud labs rapidly accelerate the pace of drug development. Since experiments are run semi-autonomously, several can be run at the same time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Overall, this enables companies to run more experiments faster, increasing an organization’s ability to discover and develop promising drug candidates.

In recent years, companies have sought assistance from CROs in hopes of accelerating their scientific work. Over the short term, CROs will perform this work for less than it costs to handle it internally. However, by outsourcing to a CRO, companies are entrusting the CRO with the responsibility of not only executing their experiments but also designing them. This creates more opportunities to inadvertently introduce protocol errors and operator bias.

Other companies integrate and automate large portions of experimental workflows to reduce cost and increase reproducibility. This enables pharmaceutical companies to retain ownership of the experimental execution, but these offerings come at the expense of flexibility, limiting a scientist’s ability to adapt to ever-changing experimental needs. Cloud labs offer the best of both solutions: scientists retain control of every aspect of their experiments, from design through data analysis and reporting, without having to perform any of the day-to-day lab work or other logistical activities themselves.

CROs can benefit from cloud labs, too. By performing their services through a cloud lab, they can accelerate their own scientific work and deliver results to their pharmaceutical clients in a timelier fashion.

A cloud lab featuring automated instruments. Researchers log in from around the world to perform research here. Credit: Emerald Cloud Lab.

Solving the reproducibility crisis

Since a 2015 study determined that
scientists generate $28 billion worth of unreproducible preclinical data per year, life science companies and universities around the world have raced to discover the source of the crisis and identify ways to solve it. Over the years, scientists have identified several causes, including unreliable instruments, underpowered datasets, poorly described research protocols, and inconsistent recording methods that lead to a pervasive rate of data loss.

Many companies and laboratories have developed tools and strategies that mitigate some of the causes of the reproducibility crisis. Some have focused on developing more precise instruments while others have developed electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) and laboratory information management systems (LIMS) to reduce the friction in getting scientists to accurately and completely record the procedures and data associated with an experiment. But while these piecemeal solutions address some of the specific causes of the crisis, they are hindered by the need for scientists to continue directly performing their experiments.

ELNs and LIMS improve traceability by more reliably observing and recording what scientists are doing in the lab. But a cloud lab approaches the problem from the opposite direction: the platform allows scientists to fully design and execute their experiments digitally. The platform presents scientists with a complete command set of every variable and option available in the lab, and by designing experiments through this set of commands, scientists must, by definition, fully describe their experiment for the command to be valid. These commands drive protocols that get recorded and stored on the cloud by default. Because every protocol has a completely defined command set behind it, researchers can readily execute the same protocols multiple times, establishing fully traceable and reproducible workflows. This increases the power of datasets and increases the probability that one’s data is valid. The semi-autonomous nature of cloud labs also reduces human error and bias that can interfere with experimental results. Unlike standalone automation solutions, these benefits apply to the entire scope and lifecycle of an experiment.

Furthermore, to assure researchers that their experiments are running properly, cloud labs link all associated data (environmental monitoring, instrument qualifications, sample data, material certificates of analysis, etc.) back to the protocol itself. This process also improves reproducibility because scientists can comprehensively compare all aspects of one protocol versus another with a single line of code. This enables researchers to rapidly troubleshoot inconsistent results by, for example, identifying that the reagent used in two experiments came from different lots.

Democratizing scientific research with a cloud lab

Besides reducing costs, accelerating drug development, and increasing reproducibility, cloud labs also make research more inclusive.
Since researchers do not have to be physically present in a lab to perform research, all scientists across the world have access to the latest instrumentation and technology. This not only reduces start-up costs for PIs and companies but also enables laboratories to hire talented scientists regardless of where they live. Universities are even able to use a cloud lab to educate their students all over the world. For instance, CMU, which is located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is having their undergraduate students run experiments through a cloud lab located near San Francisco, California, to learn how to perform research.

Overall, cloud labs are improving how research is done in ways we are only beginning to see. Pharmaceutical companies and universities will continue to discover even more benefits of cloud labs as they adopt the approach more widely and use it to discover new knowledge to benefit humanity.