Exploring the Future of Lab Informatics Tools
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Lab-based informatics systems, such as LIMS and ELNs, are becoming more commonly used in labs. We spoke with Jeff Carter, co-founder and COO of lab software company Arxspan, to discover how COVID-19 has driven digitization and how tools are developing to become more flexible and connected.
Ruairi Mackenzie (RM): What steps are involved in switching a lab from a paper-based system to a paperless, cloud-based system?
Jeff Carter (JC): There is often a perception that deploying an ELN is an onerous process that will take months. This is not the case (deployment of the Arxspan system is usually completed in days - which is why it is known in the industry as “Instant ELN”). There are three main stages to a successful deployment:
- Decide what data you need in the ELN. Increasingly companies are seeing the benefit of digitizing old as well as new data (from experiments post implementation). Companies are more commonly turning existing lab notebooks into PDFs, that can then be uploaded into an ELN. This enables users to index and search existing data, as well as data from new experiments. We believe this trend is being driven by two factors: because companies have had more time due to COVID-19 to implement these kinds of projects but also because they are now more motivated to have all of their data digitally.
- Finalize basic operational and logistical questions. You need to think through every scenario of how your company plans to use and access the data. For example, a company must consider user authorization; ensuring that the secure data is accessible to those who need access to it and restricted for those that don’t. Contract research organization (CRO) management and data access are also a critical consideration. Project managers need to plan for how they will orchestrate the activity of all internal and external partners efficiently. Implementation of these functions is simple, as long as they are considered in advance.
- Implementation. This can be completed in as little as one hour, depending on the complexity. The focus is on training - a company must ensure that their team is bought in to adopting and using the ELN. Processes must be enforced for closing paper notebooks and exclusively transitioning to digital systems. This is an issue of change management.
RM: What are, in your opinion, the most exciting advances in lab-based informatics tools of the last few years?
JC: The biggest development is in how easy it is now to get data off instruments. There are companies like Mestrelab, for example, who can export raw data from a variety of instruments and import it into a data lake to be accessed by other technology, like an ELN. We have ongoing projects, where Mestrelab is exporting and processing data and importing it directly into our ELN. This saves users significant time by automating a previously laborious and manual process. On a related point, most informatics systems are no longer isolated applications. We now have a range of APIs and ‘hooks’ that enable users to integrate their technology stack. This means that each individual software solution can essentially ‘talk’ to each other, increasing the power of each system exponentially. This enables users to compile one custom informatics solution, with features from a range of suppliers, to satisfy their unique needs.
The final advancement that I find particularly exciting is the ability to have more context around biological experiments. While ELNs have been common in chemical sciences, it is only relatively recently that tools for representing complex biological constructs such as plasmids, antibodies and AAVs have been available in an ELN. This provides much more information, enabling the details of the science to be managed in a more specific and efficient way.
Of course, at this point I should also mention the benefit of cloud computing. While this is not new for Arxspan (our system has been cloud-based from the start), the perceived barriers to cloud computing around privacy and security are now widely understood to be false. There is now broad acceptance and understanding of the benefits of cloud-based systems. In addition, more people are working remotely and require access to secure, centralized data further driving adoption of cloud-based systems.
RM: Arxspan has several distinct informatics tools. Are there any plans to consolidate these into one package – for example by storing them under functions of your ELN?
JC: All of the different Arxspan modules are already available in one system. However, with Arxspan, users can buy any one of the modules in standalone configuration or can buy an assortment integrated out of the box. We are focused on giving customers what they need to satisfy their needs.
RM: What is the biggest driver among your clients towards adopting informatics solutions in their lab?
JC: Over the past 20 years, the time savings of adopting an ELN have been clear to the scientists, but not necessarily to the business. But now, with the introduction of end-to-end digital workflows, the value proposition with regards to compliance and efficiency are so high, it is a no-brainer for businesses. Before, companies deployed an ELN to track IP: now it is making users so efficient that it is becoming a de facto standard.
Jeff Carter was speaking to Ruairi J Mackenzie, Science Writer for Technology Networks.